The Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication aims to ensure that facts on important issues are presented in ways that are accurate, transparent and relevant

We reject claims that we live in a 'post-truth' society, and that people are fed up with experts. We do acknowledge, however, that the public is ill-served by the way in which evidence is communicated.

Prof David Spiegelhalter

Whether it is individuals making choices about their lives, or government officials determining policy, we all rely on evidence. From deciding what medical treatment is best for you, to selecting the best place for an airport runway, statistical evidence helps to inform personal and collective decision making. But the numbers are often presented in ways that are intended to coerce rather than inform.

A new Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, based at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Mathematics, aims to counter this tendency by ensuring that risk, data and evidence is presented in a clear and balanced way to all of us.

Supported through generous gifts of £5 million by Winton Philanthropies, the Centre will use its knowledge and experience to encourage wide adoption of the best known methods of communicating quantitative evidence clearly and without bias.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk and Chair of the new Centre’s Executive Board, said:

“We reject claims that we live in a 'post-truth' society, and that people are fed up with experts. We do acknowledge, however, that the public, professionals and policy-makers are often ill-served by the way in which evidence is communicated.  We hope to work with others to improve how this is done, and empower people to make informed decisions that reflect both existing scientific evidence and their personal values.”

The Centre will carry out research into how we all make decisions in order to develop the best ways to present data,  and will be driven by the needs of different audiences. “As far as we know,” said Professor Spiegelhalter, “it will be the first of its kind in the world.”

One of the Centre’s first projects will be to adapt a website to describe clearly the potential benefits and harms of alternative treatments for women with early breast cancer, for use both by doctors and patients.

Professor Spiegelhalter has other examples of the use of evidence in medical stories in his sight: “Take, for instance, the recent media stories about a new test for Down’s syndrome which the NHS is going to adopt as part of the screening programme offered to pregnant women. The analysis offered does not consider factors that may be of substantial public interest, such as the potential number of terminations. This is an important issue, both for people expecting children and citizens judging policies in society, but the story is rather more complicated than has been reported so far.  We intend our Centre to help in communicating such numbers in a clear way, while acknowledging inevitable uncertainty.”

Speaking ahead of the launch of the Winton Centre, David Harding, founder and CEO of the Winton Group, said: “I know from experience that we often apply quantitative methods to justify our own prejudices. General understanding of statistical reasoning in finance is poor, but I think this also applies to other fields where the stakes are even higher, including medicine and the law. This new Centre will help individuals, governments and the media communicate numerical evidence and risk in much better ways.”

Building on the success of the Winton Programme for the Public Understanding of Risk, the Centre will have four mains strands of activity: collaboration in producing clear descriptions and visualisations of evidence, monitoring and reviewing the communication of statistics, publicising best practice, and engaging widely with UK and international media.

The Centre’s Executive Director, former BBC producer Dr Alexandra Freeman, said: “Numerical evidence should be a valuable tool for us all to form opinions and make decisions. But when it is presented in such a way as to try to persuade us, rather than inform us, we all rightly start to doubt it.”

“We want to present balanced, transparent quantitative evidence about both the pros and cons of different possible actions so that people can make their own informed decisions based on something they can trust.  We also want to help professionals, policy-makers and the media in the handling and presentation of numbers and the evidence behind them. Around the world, statistics are badly abused by those who want to influence our opinions - we want to stop that and put their power back into the hands of individuals.”

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