Torturing statistics for government gelt
IPN Opinion article
When statistics are abused, people suffer. Just ask the millions of Greeks facing pay cuts as a result of their government lying about the true state of their economy in order to join the euro 10 years ago.
The Greek government is not the only one to massage official data at their citizens' expense. Here in Britain, our election campaign saw Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused of fiddling with crime, immigration and spending statistics, all to further his own political interests.
In the United States, the Congressional Budget Office is under fire for delaying the release of data showing spending would actually rise under the president's new health reform law when its main purpose is to cut costs.
When governments collect and control the release of data, it is all too easy for them to be both judge and jury of their own policies. It is no surprise, then, that official statistics are routinely and disingenuously used by governments to promote political agendas that are at odds with inconvenient reality.
As a major collector of data, the United Nations is also guilty of some fairly serious statistical shenanigans of its own.
In recent years, the U.N. has been caught exaggerating the rate at which tropical rain forests are being cut down, overstating the connection between meat production and greenhouse gases, downplaying improvements in maternal mortality, and padding child vaccination figures for poor countries. But two examples in particular stick in the craw.
First up is the AIDS pandemic. The U.N.'s specialized AIDS agency, UNAIDS, is responsible both for collecting and interpreting data, and for political advocacy for the disease. Up until 2007, UNAIDS darkly intoned it was only a matter of time before the disease swept the world like a modern bubonic plague unless it got significant injections of public money.
But outside experts called UNAIDS's bluff, and pointed out that its statistics were alarmist. The organization was forced into a major about-face, significantly reducing its global AIDS estimates (in some countries by more than half) and toning down its apocalyptic rhetoric.
A huge industry of highly paid campaigners owe their jobs to UNAIDS's success at keeping AIDS at the top of the political agenda. A message of "things aren't quite as worrying as we first thought" is not going to keep the cash rolling in. There is therefore a huge conflict of interest in UNAIDS being both advocate and guardian of the data.
There are also big conflicts of interest in climate change. In recent years, the International Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. body that collates and interprets the scientific data, has been accused of painting an alarming picture, over-egging some data and underplaying others. Contrary to IPCC claims, independent experts have convincingly pointed out that Himalayan glaciers will not disappear within 30 years, African agriculture is not at threat from imminent collapse and the world is not about to be beset by a new plague of malaria.
That the IPCC has been prone to exaggeration must partly be attributable to the fact that it owes its very existence to the idea of climate change being dangerous. Its overriding incentive is therefore to paint as apocalyptic a picture as possible, in order to keep its cause at the top of the agenda.
With this constant drip-feed of official misinformation, it is little wonder that trust in government is at an all-time low. An April poll showed four out five Americans no longer trust Washington. Global surveys consistently find high levels of public scepticism with government.
If trust is going to be built, an important step will be to remove from governments the ability to debauch public data.
At the very least, tax-funded institutions should make their data freely and publicly available, so that they can be independently scrutinized. In the age of the Internet, there is no excuse for hiding stats away in expensive, fusty books and CD-ROMS. The World Bank last week launched a new website that presents previously inaccessible data in a clear and engaging format - a move that was long overdue.
Better yet, data crunching should be removed from government and contracted out competitively to independent, specialist organizations, whose methodology, management and financial interests should be entirely transparent. If they are found to be manipulating data at the behest of anyone, they lose the contract.
Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything, journalist Gregg Easterbrook once said. If statistics were removed from the grasp of government, at least the torture would take place in the open, where we could swiftly put a stop to it.