Statistics - Are We Really Interested in What They Tell Us?
Political parties often respond to statistics based on what the data represent and whether the party is in power or opposition. Parties in power highlight positive data and try to spin negative data. Parties in opposition highlight negative data and try to spin positive data. Seldom is there a sincere attempt to analyse the statistics, determine what both the snapshot and the trend indicate, and articulate a policy response to address whatever deficiencies the statistics expose.
There are so many other important indicators of the health of an economy and even more importantly, the wellbeing of the society, but these are very rarely discussed. We stick to the metrics of employment and GDP growth. Are the methodologies used to calculate these figures accurate? Do they reflect the dynamic nature of our societies and do they accurately capture what is going on in the informal economy? How about the inequality in the society, the Gini coefficient that is so important to social scientists? What is happening to levels of indigence and poverty in the country? What types of jobs are being created? Are these seasonal or are they permanent? Are the wages sufficient to maintain a decent standard of living? What about the morbidity and mortality indicators? Are our people getting sicker or dying at faster rates while the unemployment numbers go down? How about the environment that provides the substrate for most of our economic development? Is it being replenished at a rate commensurate with that at which agriculture, tourism and infrastructure development are depleting it? If not, can we sustain the economic development that is causing an increase in the number of jobs?
Using lower unemployment figures for one quarter to demonstrate that government policies are working, without examining other indicators and trends is like being jubilant that when you get out of bed your pulse rate is normal, without checking your fasting blood sugar, your blood pressure, your white blood cell count or your lipid profile.
Is there a reasonable correlation between rising employment and economic growth? Often, we hear of jobless growth, but is there such a thing as growth-less jobs?
We have to use data and evidence more honestly if we are serious about sustainable development. We have to allow statistics to tell the whole story, not just the part that makes us look good. We cannot accept evidence when it suits us and reject it when it paints a picture that is inconsistent with our narrative.
Benjamin Disraeli famously said, "there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics".