VICE-chancellor, you have awarded me the honours, and proved to the country that my sell-by date is millennia away from expiry.
The title of my address is “The legacy of extreme experiences and the illusiveness of facts”.
It is inspired by the book written by my late friend, the Swedish Professor Hans Rosling, the founder of the Gapminder Foundation. He was a medical professor who made statistics sing, quite literally. Together with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, on April 3 this year they published the book titled Factfulness.
I highly recommend this book as a good read to everyone. Bill Gates says it is “One of the most important books I’ve ever read - an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world”.
Today, unlike ever before, given the speed of the internet and prospects of the internet of things, we face, among other dangers, own facts, fake news, alternative facts and post-truth facts. The litany of these manifest in our private lives, in institutions of learning and houses of religion, and it's worse in public spaces, especially in government, where all of us claim a stake.
Hans Rosling says we get things wrong, so wrong, that a chimpanzee choosing answers at random will consistently outguess teachers, Nobel laureates and investment bankers. I witnessed the test, so statisticians, too, are outclassed by the chimpanzee. The legacy of extreme experiences and the illusiveness of facts, indeed.
The topic of my address is also inspired by ideas raised in the book titled Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive, by Gerd Gigerenzer. It too is quite a fantastic read.
In the face of facts of health hazards and profits, such as cancer-induced cigarette smoking, Gigerenzer says tobacco companies first denied that smoking causes cancer. When the facts were in their face, they cast doubt, and finally when they were defeated by science, they sought legal means to fight class actions against them.
But of interest is most prominently Dr Chris Barnard - the first person on earth, and a South African at that - to perform a heart transplant. But you see, he could not do my profession. He assigned a probability of survival for a heart transplant, the first in the world, to a definitive point estimate without confidence intervals.
Students of statistics and probability know that it is only when you have had * -randomised trials to arrive at predictions of x as a probabilistic outcome, and that with confidence limits. The most common is tossing an unbiased coin or die repeatedly and tabulating the outcomes.
Only one toss
Chris Barnard had a prospect of only one toss and predicted what the probability is for Louis Washkansky to survive without any sense of confidence limits. Washkansky survived, albeit just for a few days.
Chris Barnard was correct, and if anyone had taken a bet against him, he would have won and had real money in his pocket and not statistical tools. But methodologically he was completely wrong, and he would have trumped methodology if he was challenged. After all, the end justifies the means. There are many instances where public policy is replete with “Barnardism”.
It’s rather surprising how many “facts” are built around things unnoticed at the time. If truth be told, evidence is the only good reason to believe anything.
The University of KZN and its statistics department are at the forefront of this important task of tuition for the production, management, communication and use of statistical evidence, and most importantly its ethics.
In a joint programme of Maths4Stats with StatSA, Professor Delia North launched a programme that mobilised teachers in KZN in the study of statistics. This led to some very revealing findings.
First the absence of the discipline of measurement in our education system is frightening - little wonder that we have very serious accountability deficits in our body politic.
Second, some teachers found it difficult to handle a simple calculator, and this explains to some degree the parlous state of our basic education.
Third, the commitment and enthusiasm of the teachers, who religiously came on Saturdays, at their own cost, confirmed that human solidarity exists, and it is for South Africa to tap into it.
In that way we can recover the South Africa of Madiba, and I would not like to draw the wrath of President Trump and not acknowledge sources when I say “make South Africa great again”.
The greatest threat to current society is this: into this leadership vacuum come the rise of fiction, alternative facts, post facts, fake news. It is the tyranny of ubiquitous technology, it is the catapulting of evidence to the forefront of context and content-free development, and it is the concentration of money.
All of these are marauding unchecked, independent of our will and active consciousness. They have caused us to enter into social relations of production and reproduction that are toxic. They occur outside people-centred development, outside a rights-based social framework, outside caring for the planet and its people. They are throwing society into a hollow future.
There is a new intellectual frontier, therefore, that you are called upon to do battle with. This is one of reshaping and refocusing the assets of technology, statistical evidence, financial resources and human resources on the terrain of facts about society and how that society can change for the better.
We see the consequences of looking the other way when facts advise differently. Our economy and our social edifice are not what they should have been, given the historical mission for liberation and the fight against apartheid.
Our dramatic failure to build on the glorious and self-sacrifices of the cohorts of the Rivonia trialists, led by Rolihlahla Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Lionel Bernstein, James Kantor, Elias Motsoaledi, Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni.
The bold and determined struggle of our leaders Bishop Desmond Tutu, Mangaliso Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Tsietsi Mashinini and Solomon Mahlangu, and further afield those struggles waged by Toivo ya Toivo, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Abdel Nasser and Thomas Sankara.
The daily struggles of the towering Mother of the Nation, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Zondeni Veronica Sobukwe, Nokukhanya Luthuli, Albertina Sisulu and the matriarchs of our times. The giants of KZN laureate Albert Luthuli. The resistance movements of King Shaka, Gungunyane, Sekhukhune, King Moshoeshoe, Manthatisi, Hinza, Mwene wa Mutapa and Sol Plaatje.
Let me plead: We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It is very easy to say "It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem". Then, there are those among us who did see the need and responded.
I consider those people our real heroes.
You, as the graduates of today, are called upon to do all in your power not to listen to the currency of the symphony music that lulls our nerves while the Titanic is sinking; not to sleep while our country is mortgaged piece by piece, lock, stock and barrel; not to party the last play before Rome succumbs to ashes.
Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth - we have learnt those hard lessons yet again.
Whenever you expound views, add your reasons (your evidence) for doing so; it is this which distinguishes the approbation of a person of sense from the flattery of sycophants and admiration of fools.
Let me also boldly shout out: the greatest analgesic, soporific, stimulant, tranquilliser, narcotic, and to some extent even antibiotic - in short, the closest thing to a genuine panacea - known to medical science is hard work. There is no such thing as an easy walk anymore.
To the students, I wish to plead: be alert, be our moral compass and never allow your unity to be destroyed by seductive and divisive politics.
Students are a unique elite of our society, existing in racial quantums that have the potential of reshaping our future.
Living and staying together on campus should be a laboratory for such an outcome, and your undivided FeesMustFall movement held the promise of an enlightened united front that could inoculate our toxic social and economic relations.
In you and your movement I see a possibility of a new start. Your FeesMustFall movement, unfortunately, was ruthlessly destroyed by the partisan politics of the EFF, ANC, DA and all other formations.
In honesty, our fractured politics failed to yield free education.
Instead, you became the fodder and fuel for local government elections, and with their passing you remained empty-handed. You had neither decolonised nor a uniting free education; certainly not yet.
The twin realities of FeesMustFall and the 1976 Soweto uprisings are not going to slumber, nor linger, for so long as the full effects of our failed demographic dividend come to fruition, laying bare our half-hearted tinkering on a national question of human resources for the nation, especially in the face of what is termed the fourth industrial revolution. We should not sleep.
For you as graduates, here is the evidence. You have chosen well by going to school, staying the course and finally graduating. The picture of unemployment and economic performance in our country is bleak. Ask the statistician-general if you do not believe me. For those who went up to matric, their share of unemployment is 56percent, and your share as graduates is 2percent.
But that is not the full story, as graduate unemployment is 6percent compared to an average 27percent. That is for every 100 graduates, six will be unemployed.
This compares very favourably with a situation where for every 100 who have only gone to high school, 36 are unemployed.
Graduates are 10 times less likely to live in poor households compared to those with no schooling. The burden and responsibility of development is, therefore, on you, and that is why fee-free for all, decolonised, quality education is the best path for our historic moment of survival in order to thrive and possibly transform.
Please bear in mind that it took less than an hour to make the atoms, a few hundred million years to make the stars and planets, but 5billion years to make man.
Give it the best
So live your life and give it the best you can. It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. When all is said and done, all roads lead to the same end.
The South African Statistics Association a year ago connived to create a Pali Lehohla Award for the most promising student in statistics. As is usual practice, I consulted what would have been a statistician-general in waiting as to whether I should accept such an award in my name, because I feared as mortals we may bring opposite glory to the award.
Statistician-general (SG) Risenga Maluleke said: “Chief, it is an honour you cannot refuse, especially if it is for reasons of frailties of us mortals. That is not a sound reason.” So I accepted it.
As fate would have it, the first award went to Nombuso Zondo, a student who grew under the tutelage of Professor North, and she is now a PhD student. And this award was handed over by SG Maluleke.
The chemistry of a future institutional relationship is yielding successful results, and in time the 70000 statisticians and data analysts I dreamt of are now poised to emerge from this university. And many more will hopefully receive the Pali Lehohla Award for good performance, and Delia North and SG Maluleke will continue to inspire the vision for inoculating the nation from “the legacy of extreme experiences and the illusiveness of facts”.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former SG of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa.
- BUSINESS REPORT