Sta­tis­tics are re­ally a con­duit of trust

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Pali Le­hohla

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.

Pub­lic ex­po­sure

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.

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