Statis­ti­cians no longer have the com­fort and lux­ury of work­ing in iso­la­tion

The Star Early Edition - - BUSINESS REPORT - Dr Pali Le­hohla

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

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