Statisticians no longer have the comfort and luxury of working in isolation
Harry S Truman, former president of the US, who served as the commander-in-chief of the US military during the final months of World War II, said this about his career choices: “My choice early in life was either to be a piano player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there’s hardly any difference.”
South African’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa says, at times parliamentary debates bear no difference from those of a beerhall. What then could be the role of statistics in this rather murky world of politics that have the same difference as a whorehouse or a beerhall?
The profession and life of statisticians is facing ever increasing leadership demands, including career threats, as the paradigm for evidence-based decision making becomes apparent and places decision support systems and decisions – that is statistics and politics – at the apex of the being of society.
Statisticians, therefore, no longer have the comfort and luxury of working in isolated and rarefied spaces from whence they monopolise whatever technology there is and throw their toil over the wall for policy to catch and for them, the policy makers, to try and make sense of the complex Pandora’s box of statistics. Technology has diffused the clear cut era of a Chinese wall between statistics and policy and the end of this classical manifestation of a wall is nigh.
Through technological advances, the nexus of numbers and space have now been solved and become a tool for facilitating collaboration across society.
A three-dimensional world is now in the hands of everyone. But more importantly a four-dimensional reality is within reach of society as time can now be factored on the fly into the material world.
The science of where – location – which is the heart beat of politics, has caught the quiet, and quite unprepared, and underprepared statisticians.
This has catapulted them to the high table of society – captured so succinctly by the World War II President of the US, Harry S Truman, and Deputy President Ramaphosa of South Africa – where the difference between the whorehouse and beerhall debates on the one hand are not easily discernible from the world of debates in politics.
This is where they, the statisticians, have to first make sense of not how society should be organised, but the reality of how society has decided to organise itself – the subject of human endeavour.
This is in order for statisticians to shed light on how sustainable development goals can be achieved by providing decision support platforms of description, analysis, diagnostics, prediction, prescription and adaptation to the disciplines of decision making and decision makers.
These crucial stages of statistical measurement can no longer be undertaken in rarefied environments as the emerging and corporeal needs of the material world imply continuous engagement among decision support systems-statistics – and decision making – politics.
The question then is do statisticians appreciate and understand the policy imperatives? Are they alive to the attendant risks which in the main are political and partisan or perceived as such when their inevitable task has to relate and actively engage the discipline of decision support systems to that of decisions?
Are politicians, policy practitioners and society alive to the dilemma that statisticians and conveyors of decision support systems carry and confront in the emergent and new normal?
Helmut Spinner, addressing the statisticians of the Economic Commission for
Statisticians no longer have the comfort and luxury of working in isolated, rarefied spaces from whence they monopolise whatever technology there is.
Europe in 1998, focused on this dilemma. He made some profound observations about the purveyors of information and the risk profile of each in the information and decision making market place.
In this regard he provided a succinct narrative of interpretation of statistics and decisions. He profiled the responsibilities and risk behaviours of statisticians, scientists and politicians in the production, understanding and application of evidence. He then poses the question of what world in relation to the production and use of evidence should we construct.
He comes to the conclusion that the information society is a world where information is power and it is the one we are moving into and it is the one where official statistics as an information system constitutes the corner stone of evidence and trust.
However, he goes on to point out the preconditions for existence of such a society and argues that such a world is where freedoms of citizens are guaranteed, literacy and competency levels for choice are progressively enabled and assured and information is available to everyone, available everywhere and available simultaneously.
Like the late Hans Rosling, Spinner is acutely aware that the precondition of such a world where information is power is where there is a clear distinction and choice of actions.
The decisions should be driven by a fact-based world view. Innovation is crucial as the famous physicist, Geoffrey West, argues quite correctly that unbounded systems can only survive through continuous innovation but whose speed is accelerating in time, if the system is to avoid collapse.
Statistics is about evidence, politics is about decisions. A plan formalises the relationship between the disciplines of evidence and decisions. Technology is the matrimonial platform where the vows about consummation of conjugal obligations of evidence and decisions are facilitated, taken and performed.
I would assert therefore that the new and emergent task of statisticians in the sphere of evidence-based decision-making as one from skiing on the broad, smooth and safe surface of the saw to one where the statistician is skiing on the serrated side of the saw.
Thus making statistics a career carries immense risks. Furthermore I would asserts that a successful interface of statistical evidence and political decisions comes about through maturity in leadership in an accountable and democratic state.
New terminology in the world of technology and concomitant abundance of data imbue concepts such as big data, citizen science, alternative facts and fake news.
Patrick Moynihan, the US senator, warned us that you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.
Statistics is a conduit of trust and statistical facts are crucial in driving sound politics as they constitute a crucial and essential disinfectant of the syndrome of the “whorehouse and beerhall-like politics and their political management”.
Dr Pali Lehohla is South Africa Statistician-General and Head of Statistics South Africa and this is an abridged version of a paper he presented at the ISI on Statistical Governance in Marrakech, Morocco.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The writer says Ramaphosa at times argues that Parliamentary debates bear no difference from those in a beerhall.
Harry S Truman