Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Statistics, Lies and Politics

Last week was a tough week for statistics. This is quite unfortunate since they should have neither good nor bad days –they should really just stand as incontrovertible results whose meanings we debate and use to buttress or defeat arguments. On two separate occasions we saw statistics—no less Bermuda Government Department of Statistics data—handled in ways that should cause us all to be deeply concerned.

The most damaging salvo was unleashed by the irrepressibly pugnacious Minister for Finance ET Richards. During the early hours of Saturday morning, when the marathon 12 hour debate on the Throne Speech was winding down, Richards awakened from a brief nap and took to his feet. In his defence of his government’s economic and immigration policy he launched a strong attack on the figures I used during my contribution to the debate. My numbers were based entirely on government data published by the Department of Statistics. In rejecting my argument, Minister Richards made the following statement: “Those statistics aren’t right…they were not right under you [PLP] and they are not right under us. I’m going to work to make them right.”

There are two disturbing aspects here. Firstly, the Minister has dismissed the work of a Department that for decades has been the embodiment of professionalism and has consistently delivered high calibre work. Never before has there been any, even implied, criticism of the work of this highly qualified group of women and men. Minister Richards has evidently come to the conclusion that his gut instinct is better able to calculate population size, migration patterns and workforce data than his team of statisticians. Secondly, his undertaking to “make them right” raises the prospect of ministerial interference in what is and should always be work well beyond the pale of politics. Making statistics “right” in this sense can only mean making them look as Minister Richards thinks they should look, rather than as they really are.  In addition to the obvious wrongs in making statistics “right” the policy consequences of acting on false data could be disastrous. It could lead to an ill conceived economic, immigration and education strategy. Minister Richards needs to step away from any adventures along the road called interference and leave the Department of Statistics to continue its good work. 

A few days before the Richards outburst there was a more somber, analytical presentation made by the head of the human resources firm Expertise, Mr Douglas Soares. As a former student of mine at Bermuda College, I know Doug to be careful and rigourous in his analysis and one disinclined to try to fit facts to the narrative he wishes to advance. On the education levels of the Bermudian workforce, though, he has missed the mark considerably and inadvertently misled the public, given the considerably attention his Rotary speech attracted.
Referring to the Bermuda Census 2010, Mr Soares stated that 26% of working age Bermudians had no academic qualifications at all and only 19% had degrees. He further states “Census data from other countries also strongly suggests that the rate at which we produce university educated citizens is very low.” And finally, “It is clear: Bermuda lags behind many of our competitor jurisdictions and we must do better.”

Unfortunately, Mr Soares has his numbers wrong. He takes his numbers from page 31 of the 2010 Census, but those figures refer to all Bermudians aged 16 years and older. The universal standard is to look at the numbers for the working age population, which is set at ages 25-64. Expertise should be well aware on this when addressing such an emotive issue. Certainly, all the countries he seeks to compare Bermuda to are assessed based on the working age population.

When re-calibrated to make for proper international comparisons and to reflect the education levels among the Bermudian working population—as opposed to all Bermudians 25-64 years of age—the results are quite different. Bermudians with BA degrees and higher account for 24.5% of the Bermudian workforce; those Bermudians with a technical qualification, vocational certificate and associated degree account for 22.9% of the population; one third of this workforce (32.6%) attained only high school leaving certificates or equivalent; and 16.8% hold no formal educational attainment. These data alone undermined the merits of Mr Soares’s argument. 
When compared with other jurisdictions, however, Bermuda is holding its own in terms of educational attainment. In a 2012 OECD study on tertiary educational attainment for populations between 25 and 64 (http://www.oecd.org/edu/EAG%202012_e-book_EN_200912.pdf), Bermuda tied the OECD average at 31%

The impression given by Mr Soares is that Bermuda has a comparatively less educated workforce and that the overall level of educational attainment is low. The statistics simply do not support this argument – and therefore the policy implications. 

As tough as last week was for statistics they stand unmoved and ready for interpretation. They should be used first to gain insight and then form the foundation of data driven and fact driven strategies. Anything less simply will not do.

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