Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Photo: Thobile Mathonsi

The perils of being a statistician general are never ending

By Pali Lehohla Time of article published Aug 15, 2021

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WALTER Radermacher, Germany’s erstwhile chief statistician and former director general of Eurostat, the EU statistical agency, writes: “Statistical facts and the decisions based on them are not two separate worlds, but are in a complex relationship with each other”.

As a statistical community, we tend to avoid these difficult realities instead of dealing with them also in a scientific way.

What the “Économie des Conventions” and scholars like Alain Desrosières or Theodore Porter teach us is that the danger of political influence increases with the relevance of statistical facts for political decisions.

For example, in his book, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning, Desrosières writes about the philosophical reasoning of statistics.

While Porter, in his work Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, identifies the historical origins of the reliance on numbers.

As evidence-based decision-making becomes more widespread, the risk of feedback increases, which is a great danger for statistics and their quality as well as for statisticians.

Just extrapolate these experiences to the future, where it will no longer be just about augmented decision-making, but increasingly about automated decision-making. The responsibility will then be completely outsourced to data, statistics and algorithms.

Radermacher writes to set the context for prospective persecution and prosecution of statisticians generally and Andreas Georgiou specifically.

Georgiou, the former chief statistician of Greece, has been persecuted by the Greek executive for upholding the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics and the Treaties that govern the EU.

Chief among these principles is the European Statistics Regulation, the European System of Accounts, and the European Statistics Code of Practice.

In one of several articles I penned in this column on injustices against Georgiou was that he is the Galileo Galilee of the 21st Century.

Galilee, an Italian scientist, made a finding five centuries ago that the Earth is not flat and in fact revolves on its axis and rotates around the sun. By Papal order Galilee was imprisoned for blasphemy against God’s creation of Earth as the centre of the universe.

The sin that Georgiou committed was to correct the public deficit statistics and fulfil an obligation of Greece to the EU.

The basis for a rescue package to Greece by the EU since 2011 is based on this correction for which Georgiou to date remains enemy number one in Greece.

The perils of being a chief statistician are a never-ending dilemma. There are many tricks politicians throw at disliked evidence.

Common among these is to starve the institution, ignore the numbers, instruct changes in methods, fire the chief statistician, and in the case of Georgiou, impugn a vexatious litigation. Georgiou’s prosecution has been slammed as a violation of scientific freedom and human rights by the American Statistical Association’s Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights and he has become a scapegoat for Greece’s political class, according to the Financial Times.

Jean Louis Bodin rightly observes thus in the tragedies of ancient Greece, it was not good to be the messenger carrying bad news.

Sophocles sends the following words to a guard coming to tell Creon of Antigone’s rebellion: no one feels affection for a bearer of bad news.

And often the messenger was executed. It is indeed a contemporary Greek tragedy that Andreas Georgiou has been living since 2013. In the case of Greece the messenger has always been the victim.

* Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and the former head of Statistics South Africa. Meet him at www.pie.org.za and Palilj01

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites

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