Why statisticians need to be on the right side of history
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?
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.