Statistics are really a conduit of trust
STASTISTICS is a conduit of trust. It is the most publicly transacted currency and therefore has to imbue trust. Statistics therefore have to be produced by those that, in the eyes and lived experience of the community of practice and use most importantly, can be trusted. Yet as is evident, trust falls like manna from heaven: only rarely.
The UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, particularly Principle Four, places the obligation to fight abuse and misinterpretation of statistics on the statistician-general. Upon assuming duty as the statistician-general in 2000, I asked myself the question of how I would implement Principle Four.
Should I take a defensive or an educative stance?
By 2002 I had an answer and an educative stance won the day. So from September 28 2002 onwards I started a writing weekly column in Business Report, a national daily newspaper. Over the last 14 years I have published no less than 750 weekly columns and these have contributed tremendously in building trust in statistics in South Africa.
It is for this reason that the world shed the burden of trust to Statistics South Africa to among others host the Common Wealth Statistics Conference in 2005, the 57th Session of the ISI in 2009, the very first UN World Data Forum we are hosting since Sunday, and the 28th IUSSP Session in this very venue in nine months time.
Statistics suffer the burden of public exposure and scrutiny and this exposure is industry wide. Left unprotected and left to self-regulation, bad elements of practice contaminate the system of statistics.
As the statistician-general, I anticipated and have experienced the burden of this exposure and the column serves as an educative instrument. It establishes the presence of statistics where they is needed the most, builds public confidence in statistics, breeds critical thinking in society, deepens democracy and builds institutional brand.
So as the measurement arm of the sustainable development goals take root, especially with the ebbs and flows of many emerging players in this space with technology, financing, data and ideas, the need for thought leadership to exude statistics as a conduit of trust is more urgent.
The most valued treasure of statistics use is time series: its museum value. Left to their own devices the unfettered emergence of multitudes of players in this space is a fundamental threat to the practice of statistics and the UN World Data Forum provides the space for organising to preserve and sustain statistical time series for posterity, prosperity through use and enjoyment by people and the planet.
I have learnt that use and practice of statistics, including emergence of other players, is possible when a statistician-general takes an educative lead in terms of the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics.
This is especially holding fearlessly to Principle Four “addressing misuse and wrong interpretation of statistics”, while being alive to the fact that the message and the messenger share a lot in common – and therefore can rarely escape scrutiny, attack, gossip, ridicule and approval. Dr Pali Lehohla is South Africa’s statisticiangeneral and head of Statistics South Africa.