JOHANNESBURG – Andreas Georgiou of Greece makes the record on the contestation of politics and statistics. His has been running almost for a decade, and three years after he left office as the president of Elstat – the Greek Statistics Office – the authorities have ceaselessly continued to hound him.
His only sin was to uphold methodological independence and rigour in the production of statistics.
The world of statisticians provides the necessary evidence that what Georgiou is going through is nothing short of what Galileo Galilei and other scientists were subjected to.
The International Statistics Institute petitioned the Greek authorities for their persecution of Georgiou. Former Eurostat director-general Walter Radermacher published his displeasure at the Greek numbers before Georgiou’s time and endorsed his professional work.
The associations of American and European statisticians also petitioned authorities on Georgiou.
No statistician has ever been subjected to such vexatious litigation as Georgiou. Only Canadian, Norwegian and US chief statisticians have been forced to step down as a result of pressure from their governments.
Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin signed off on the execution of his chief statistician for returning population numbers that were less than his own facts.
While this has never happened in South Africa, threats in pronouncements persist that the statistician-general should not analyse and interpret numbers.
Unfortunately, those who try to preach this rhetoric are blind to the statutes. I would shudder the day when politicians become statistics’ priests.
Georgiou, a Greek national, was recruited from the International Monetary Fund to sort out the country’s statistics. He did a fantastic job and completed the correction of the underestimation of the Greek government deficit by applying fully the statistical rules that apply to all EU member states.
The corrections carried out while Georgiou was at the helm of the national statistics office led to the deficit rising by about 2 percent of growth domestic product for each of the years between 2006 and 2009. This correction is what puts Georgiou and his colleagues at the door of life imprisonment.
As late as last month, the country’s prosecuting authorities formally approached the Appeals Court Council to refer Georgiou and his Elstat colleagues for trial for making false statements about the 2009 government deficit to cause a extraordinarily large damage of “€171 billion (R2.8 trillion) to the state. This is the third time that the Appeals Court Council has been asked to do so following annulments by the Supreme Court.
The authorities explicitly note in their papers – contrary to EU regulations – that Eurostat “does not engage in judgment” about the methods used by a national statistical office in the EU.
They dismiss the fundamental role of Eurostat in the validation of European official statistics in public finance and the certification of the national statistics provided by Eurostat after checking them. Instead, they explicitly accept and adopt the statements of some former Elstat board members and of a former director of national accounts of the statistics office from the period of perpetually misreported statistics (2006 to mid-2010).
They believe in a say so and not in rigorously tested facts.
Greece appears to be on its own course and it is high time that the UN Statistics Commission enters the debate, especially in the era of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals where statistics have become the rock of scientific discourse.
Short of that statistics and science are in danger of political facts, and thus human development faces significant reversals in the gains. Only then it will be clear who is the black man – human development.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former statistician-general of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa.
The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.