Why statis­ti­cians need to be on the right side of his­tory

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

IN MY col­umn of July 25, ti­tled “The per­ils and pit­falls of a modern statis­ti­cian”, I raised the mat­ter of a court case be­fore which a former Greek chief-statis­ti­cian would ap­pear on July 31. The only sin he had com­mit­ted was to serve his coun­try with­out fear or favour and that he could be trusted with a con­duit of trust – sta­tis­tics.

He re­vised the deficit of Greece fol­low­ing well-es­tab­lished sta­tis­ti­cal prac­tices in ac­cor­dance with the UN’s fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples for of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics – the Euro­stat code of sta­tis­ti­cal prac­tice, the IMF spe­cial data dis­sem­i­na­tion stan­dards and the Greek law for El­stat.

All An­dreas Ge­or­giou did, as the former Hel­lenic chief statis­ti­cian from 2010-2015, was to be a paragon of pro­fes­sion­al­ism worth em­u­lat­ing.

He car­ried the cross for all statis­ti­cians by pledg­ing his be­ing to oath of of­fice, only to face the wrath of vex­a­tious gov­ern­ment lit­i­gants.

No amount of ac­quit­tals by pan­els of Greek judges were to win him his free­dom and on July 31 he was handed a sus­pended jail term of two years.

The case was like a clas­si­cal Spar­tan roast­ing at the stake. There was peren­nial cheer­lead­ing of chants from the court gallery pro­claim­ing “guilty” and “traitor” through­out the court pro­ceed­ings of July 31.

And Ge­or­giou’s woes are not over.

He still faces an­other case, a more se­ri­ous felony charge that car­ries a life im­pris­on­ment sen­tence if he is not ac­quit­ted.

The case by the gov­ern­ment is framed as one of suf­fer­ing caused by the Greek state and peo­ple when Ge­or­giou re­vised the deficit of Greece.

As al­ready pointed out, all global in­sti­tu­tions hav­ing a su­per­vi­sory role in sta­tis­tics have af­firmed as cor­rect the re­vi­sions the former chief statis­ti­cian im­ple­mented.

How­ever, the only prob­lem is that po­lit­i­cally in Greece the medicine is too bit­ter and dif­fi­cult to swal­low.

The mes­sen­ger, Ge­or­giou, there­fore had to roast at the stake.

I also raised the mat­ter of how, in 2012, I chal­lenged the Argentinian statis­ti­cians for fal­si­fy­ing their price sta­tis­tics.

This got the Argentinian au­thor­i­ties hot un­der the col­lar and led them to ac­cost South African am­bas­sador Basso Sanqu and Paul Che­ung, the direc­tor of the UN sta­tis­tics di­vi­sion, on my ut­ter­ances.


But on Thurs­day, Au­gust 3 I was pleas­antly sur­prised when I got a re­port from our South African embassy in Ar­gentina.

So there it goes, five years later. On July 26, the South African Embassy, to­gether with many other am­bas­sadors in Ar­gentina, was in­vited by In­dec – the sta­tis­tics of­fice of Ar­gentina.

The head of In­dec and new pres­i­dent Dr Jorge Todesca had only re­spect­ful words for Sta­tis­tics South Africa and how use­ful it was that South Africa raised the red flag over those “wild days”.

Dr Todesca and his deputy, Her­man Munos, who form the cur­rent lead­er­ship of Ar­gentina’s sta­tis­tics, lamented the rule of Pres­i­dent Kirch­ner, who had a pen­chant for in­ter­fer­ing with the au­thor­ity of the chief statis­ti­cians and specif­i­cally changed the con­sumer price in­dex of Ar­gentina, and in a sin­gle-handed way de­stroyed the in­sti­tu­tion.

Over the past 18 months, In­dec of Ar­gentina has risen from the rub­ble and in its sights it would like to em­u­late Sta­tis­tics South Africa.

How heart-warm­ing and re­ward­ing, then, it is to­day, that the scur­rilous words and shouts hurled at me five years ago – in March 2012 on that fate­ful day in cold New York – have now turned into praise for South Africa, though only now in Buenos Aires, the cap­i­tal of Ar­gentina, and not in New York.

When I got this I sang the song, Don’t cry for me Ar­gentina with some new lyrics – “Don’t cry for me Ar­gentina, the truth is, I never left you.” My cri­tique of your sta­tis­tics never meant I didn’t love you. “So keep your prom­ise.” I’ll go and eat Argentinian cheese and Argentinian wine to cel­e­brate the re­pen­tance of the prodi­gal son.

The Greek de­ci­sion con­tin­ues to raise the ire of statis­ti­cians, so did Ar­gentina, so are those of many other ju­ris­dic­tions.

The Thatcher years did not dress Bri­tish sta­tis­tics, es­pe­cially the em­ploy­ment ones, in glory. It took the ten­ure of the former chief statis­ti­cian of Aus­tralia and former chief statis­ti­cian of New Zealand in Bri­tain to get the path to­wards restor­ing the Bri­tish sta­tis­tics sys­tem af­ter it was de­stroyed by Thatcherist mea­sure­ment.

The Bri­tish sys­tem has had to un­der­take a fun­da­men­tal and se­ri­ous re­view in the past 10 years post the build­ing blocks pro­vided by the Aus­tralian and the New Zealan­der to build trust in the sta­tis­tics of Bri­tain.

This is de­spite its rep­utable train­ing in­sti­tu­tions and the pres­ti­gious Royal Sta­tis­tics So­ci­ety.

Len Cook, the New Zealand chief statis­ti­cian, left Bri­tain af­ter his ten­ure there. He was not a very happy per­son when the MPs ridiculed him, say­ing “Mr Cook is cook­ing the books”.

He was one of the most suc­cess­ful chief statis­ti­cians and our com­mu­nity con­tin­ues to re­spect him.

Ms Gra­ciela Bavac­qua of Ar­gentina was sac­ri­ficed by the Argentinian au­thor­i­ties for stick­ing to good prac­tice in cal­cu­la­tion of the Con­sumer Price In­dex. With two teenage chil­dren who had to find schools and be fed, her pro­fes­sional in­tegrity was not for sale as she stood her ground and got fired from In­dec.

I in­vited her to South Africa in June 2014 to ad­dress us on the pit­falls of gov­ern­ments. She gave a very clear ren­di­tion of how Ar­gentina’s au­thor­i­ties de­stroyed In­dec as an in­sti­tu­tion. Yet An­dreas Ge­or­giou of Greece still faces a felony charge, his record has a blot of hav­ing been sen­tenced, thus tar­nish­ing his pro­fes­sional im­age for do­ing the right thing.

The sta­tis­tics of the morgue are full of statis­ti­cians. What, then, are the lessons that we should learn from the sta­tis­tics of the morgue?

Poor cousin

First is that the sys­tems of ev­i­dence are un­der­go­ing a rapid revo­lu­tion and are in des­per­ate need of far-sighted lead­ers.

Sec­ond is that our con­scious be­ing as South Africa, es­pe­cially, has to un­der­stand that sta­tis­tics is a con­duit of trust. Third is that sta­tis­tics have been a poor cousin who is com­ing of age in the ar­chi­tec­ture of an ac­count­able state.

Fourth is that birth and com­ing of age are usu­ally ac­com­pa­nied by strug­gle and con­tin­gent risk to both the mes­sen­ger, that is the statis­ti­cian-gen­eral, and the mes­sage.

Fifth, that shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger can be very ex­pe­di­ent and the eas­i­est of things and the prob­lem dis­ap­pears.

Sixth, as in the fairy tale of Masilo and Masilonyane, the heart of Masilonyane fol­lows those who shot the mes­sen­ger. So the prob­lem does not dis­ap­pear but comes with ti­dal eco­nomic suf­fer­ing. So, like in Ar­gentina, Greece and Bri­tain, where sta­tis­tics and statis­ti­cians con­tin­ued to be twisted and in­ter­fered with by politi­cians, the cit­i­zens were not saved by twist­ing the facts but suf­fered very badly.

Seventh, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of tech­nol­ogy is not go­ing to make the task of statis­ti­cians any easier as own facts, fake news dom­i­nate the po­lit­i­cal space.

Fi­nally, statis­ti­cians have a fun­da­men­tal task as pall bear­ers of a con­duit of trust – sta­tis­tics to be on the right side of his­tory. In­deed, Gra­ciela Bavac­qua of Ar­gentina and An­dreas Ge­or­giou of Greece will be em­bossed as those who took the call when it was made and oc­cu­pied the right side of his­tory.

The ques­tion is, can we count on statis­ti­cians to count where it counts the most? Be­ing a pall-bearer of a con­duit of trust is a bur­den of re­spon­si­bil­ity.


Pro­test­ers hold Greek flags out­side their coun­try’s par­lia­ment in Athens in 2015. Writer Pali Le­hola says the only sin Greek statis­ti­cian An­dreas Ge­or­giou com­mit­ted was to serve his coun­try with­out fear or favour, by re­vis­ing the deficit of Greece fol­low­ing well es­tab­lished sta­tis­ti­cal prac­tices in ac­cor­dance with the UN’s fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples for of­fi­cial stats.


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