Oct 22, 2010

On average, who knew Wednesday was World Statistics Day?


I’ll bet I was one of the few people in British Columbia that was a little excited that last Wednesday was set aside to honour statistics.

The United Nations General Assembly declared October 20th World Statistics Day.  The Under-Secretary for Economic and Social Affairs issued a statement saying:

Reliable, timely data are crucial for economic and social development. They allow policy makers from member states and the UN system to analyze important trends on numerous issues, such as the pace at which the world is progressing to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Without solid information we cannot measure where we are and what needs to be done. If the world cannot get the right numbers, it cannot push for the right solutions.

The Director of the UN Statistics Division said statistics :

generate public debate and contribute to the progress of our nations. They are indispensable to academic research and the development of businesses and the civil society. Statistics ultimately serve everyone in society.

I am not a statistician but I use and value their work.  Statistics used properly can provide us a baseline of data we need for our policy discussions.  How can we talk about poverty if we do not know the magnitude of the problem?  How can we talk about substandard housing if we know nothing about the housing our citizens live in?  To repeat the Under Secretary, “Without solid information we cannot measure where we are and what needs to be done.”

That is why, of all things, the long form Census became a political issue this summer.  The Federal Conservatives cancelled the mandatory program and literally dozens of governments and organizations said it was the wrong thing to do.

Industry Minister Tony Clement said the government did not want to use coercion to get people to fill out the census but I am pretty sure that is not the real reason.  I think right wing columnist Neil Reynolds came closer to the government’s mind set writing in the Globe and Mail last July.

Liberally (if I can use the term) quoting economist Friedrich Hayek, Reynolds made the case that it was dangerous to rely on data.  Reynolds quotes philosopher Alfred North Whitehead saying:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism … that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

Don’t rely on data, Reynolds says, instead:

the most competent decision-maker is the decentralized decision-maker – the person who solves his or her own problems based on his or her own knowledge: the people “on the spot.”

Thus we have decision making today.  We need more jails not because the numbers show a need but because of unreported crimes.  We cancel the long-form census not because people complain about it but because government knows that people are unhappy with it.  Closer to home we don’t need an inquiry into Basi/Virk because the Premier knows people don’t want it. 

Our governments solve their problems based on their own knowledge “on the spot.”  Data that offers a different argument is an inconvenience that can be gotten rid of. 

In countries like Chad and Cambodia, World Statistics day was honoured with speeches by Cabinet Ministers, conferences and banners.  In Ottawa we celebrated it with a cake and a meeting at Stats Can Offices. 

The Statistical Society of Canada had their own celebration with a mock funeral for our long form census.

Don’t think.  Don’t rely on data.  It is a discouraging position for governments to take.  As for me, I had a glass of wine on Wednesday and toast to statisticians.