Misuse of statistics: time to speak out


by John Pullinger,
President, International Association for Official Statistics

15 October 2020

The Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics are a pillar of the Global Statistical System. They have been endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly and are of universal applicability to all nations and at the regional and global levels. They set the standard for statistics that serve the public good, helping decision makers make well founded decisions and enabling others to hold those decision makers accountable for their promises

The current pandemic, occurring alongside the decade for action on the Sustainable Development Goals, has brought into sharp focus the critical importance of trustworthy official statistics that meet the requirements of the Fundamental Principles.

A particular feature of the current climate is the danger of false statistics that can mislead and result in poorer decisions. Such false statistics may be the result of an inadequate design, implementation or communication or a deliberate attempt to deceive in order to serve a vested interest. Either way false statistics result in poorer decisions and therefore lost lives, weaker economies, less just societies and a future for our children that is not as sustainable as it could have been.

The 4th Fundamental Principle of Official Statistics states that the statistical agencies are entitled to comment on erroneous interpretation and misuse of statistics. Earlier this month the International Association for Official Statistics and the International Statistical Institute, with support from the World Bank Trust Fund for Statistical Capacity Building hosted a webinar to explore the issues involved in living up to Fundamental Principle 4.

The webinar attracted over 250 participants from across the world and featured a brilliant line up of speakers. Ed Humpherson powerfully made the case that the public do care about statistics and we can take action against misuse. Martine Durand reminded us that we have a sound ethical basis for action but need to reposition statistics in the new “datafied” society and create an independent international data convention or charter. Andreas Georgiou encouraged us to support statisticians and statistics who are attacked unfairly and to call out suppression, self-censorship, poor practice and misuse yet always be open to criticism. Hernan Munoz gave us his first hand account of the cautionary tale of statistics in Argentina and finally Pali Lehohla urged us to wake up and smell the coffee: COVID has been a timely reminder that absence of good statistical evidence undermines and threatens all of us.

Questions from the floor demonstrated the depth of interest in the subject. How to deal with misuse of statistics in developing nations? How should statistics offices respond to criticism? What are the drivers of misuse of statistics? How does the COVID-19 pandemic show the importance of good use of statistics? How should we define misuse of statistics? What tools do we have at international level to condemn departure from the Fundamental Principles? What about the persistent failure of critics to extract a clear shift towards openness? Why have international bodies failed to produce reliable statistics on COVID that allow between country comparisons? Are voluntary systems of compliance with codes of practice a sensible first step? How can law and enforcement agencies help in reducing misuse of statistics?

As we celebrate World Statistics Day, we should celebrate and support our official statistics. They are produced as part of a worldwide mission to serve the public good. We should cheer on those who produce them and call shame on those who suppress, distort, manipulate and misuse numbers to mislead, cover up and divert attention from what is really going on