Of white lies and statistics!

There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up

Khalid Saleem February 05, 2018
The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of the OIC

There are two kinds of statistics, the kind you look up and the kind you make up. These words, gentle reader, are not mine. They were written by a perspicacious person more in the know of the subject than one can aspire to be. Statistics, one is further informed, can be used to prove anything and everything. Let us face it; this is not said without reason. Figures can be devastatingly misleading. They are like plasticine, open to moulding into any shape one may care to devise.

The classical example of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty — depending on the eye or disposition of the beholder — is a case in point. The same set of statistics can be, and often is, used by parties holding diametrically opposite viewpoints, each to prove its own side of the story.

The so-called technical experts have always had the regrettable tendency to take advantage of the (often) obscure tools of their trade to throw the layman off the scent. The cause of the statistician as well as that of his cousin, once removed — the economist — fall in more or less the same category. Give them enough latitude and the two of them would willingly weave the rosy web of well-stacked figures (more often than not, un-backed by facts) to boggle the minds of unsuspecting common folk.

At this point, it may be politic to take a closer look at the sorcery of figures. The classic example of a person standing with one foot in the oven and the other in the ice-box is a case in point. Looking at the ‘average’, the statistician would have the world believe that the condition of the person in question was ‘most comfortable’. What our friend tends to ignore is that figures, however impressive by themselves, cannot stand on their own. Much like the bones of a skeleton, figures need not only to be fleshed out but also interpreted with circumspection coupled with a sense of realism to get to the true picture.

Those who profess to be guardians of the economic well-being of the people, turn out to be some of the worst offenders. Economists of diverse shades of opinion are known to have used the same set of figures to prove diametrically opposite theories. One group quotes the statistics to come to the conclusion that, say, devaluation of a currency would be the cure of the ills of a particular economy. The opposing camp, using the same set of statistics, sets out to argue that ‘devaluation’ would lead to economic disaster. It is a different matter that ultimately both may be proved wrong by the facts of life!

The common man, as always, remains on the receiving end of things. He looks on helplessly as first the one and then the other lot has their way with the economy of the state. The economists throw statistics at each other, while the economy itself struggles to survive the buffets of the unhealthy tug of war. This, then, is the sad story of the ragged economies of most developing states. What is needed is someone like Lord Lloyd George to step in and remind the ‘experts’ that, “You cannot feed the hungry on statistics”.

The guardians of the world economic order have rammed loads of statistics down the throats of unsuspecting laymen. No wonder the world economic order is in the shape that it is! In fact, it may not be entirely inaccurate to aver that the current world economic crisis is somehow related to the surfeit of the statistical data being strewn around.

Mr Justice Streatfield had it right when he said that, “Facts speak louder than statistics”. But, then, who would convince the bands of such dedicated individuals as statisticians and economists to respect the ‘facts’ that invariably go by default. Let us face it; would the common man have the time or the inclination to take a good hard look at the ‘facts’ given the intricate web of figures spun by the statisticians that serves to cloud the people’s collective vision?

Published in The Express Tribune, February 5th, 2018.

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