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Lies, damned lies and statistics

11 July 2011

There’s an expression saying that there are three types of lies: “Lies, damn lies and statistics” And I can see the point of that, statistics can easily be manipulated. But I will tell why I like statistics:

  • That it makes it possible to compare, for example over time. Everything from sales quantities to development of literacy. This one of the reasons I love Gapminder, created by Professor Hans Rosling, which shows the development of the world’s countries in various aspects.
  • It can create transparency.
  • Three words: National Distribution Curve

Two personal reasons:

  • A nerdy part of me likes it. Formulas and graphs, for some it reason it is fun. For a limited amount of time. And I have to have an interested in the data itself. Comparison of completed school years vs  the socio-economical status of the parents: Oh yes. Comparison of the preferred saving gel in Germany and the U.K.: Not so much. (Probability calculations: Oh no!)
  • It takes away some of the horrible stories that are behind the figures. Soviet Union dictator Josef Stalin is supposed to have said “The death of one man is a tragedy, one million dead is statistics”. Stalin wasn’t a role model in any sense, and considering statistics he’s a very good example of how to use it for manipulation. But there is something true in that quote. Large impersonal numbers takes away the tears. I know I lose the personal connection, but at the same time it doesn’t have the same heartbreaking effect. I don’t know if the pro or cons are predominant concerning this in the end.

But something I have realized during the months I have spent here is the necessity of updated development statistics; this is especially true for a country such as India. It is simply not the same country as a decade back. Examples of this are water connectivity, literacy rates and the former practice of child marriage. Child marriage has during the last fifteen year gone from a normal custom not something rare.

However, this is some examples I’ve seen based on usage of old data, which contributes to misunderstanding and in the end probably also mistargeted efforts for change. The worst I have seen was a data source from 1979 in report from the 2000’s. Think about it. 1979. The year of the Islamistic Revolution in Iran. The year then Soviet started its war in Afghanistan, a war very much caused by the political situation of the Cold War. ABBA was on top of the charts with their LP Voulez-Vous. Taste those words. Soviet Union, the Cold War, LP. It feels like a while ago, right? Usage of development data from the 70’s would be the same thing as saying that Iran is ruled by a pro-American government, music is distributed on LP-records that you buy in music stores and the World is under threat of World War 3 between the US and the communistic Soviet Union.

A lot has changed since then, huh? Well, it has certainly in India. So if you don’t have reasonably updated data, the probably best thing to do is to not use it at all. Because the effect can be that focus ends up at the wrong place.
The 1979-case was an extreme example. But it is rather common to see data from ten years back in newly printed reports. Same example again: Music is still bought mostly in music stores but now on CDs, the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers is a popular tourist destination and hot spot of the economy in New York, China is the fifth largest economy of the world and Iraq is governed by the dictator Saddam Hussien. Or maybe not. Still some things have changed, haven’t they?

And how was life back in 1979? I don’t know have a clue; it was five years before I was born.

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