Statistics versus reality
Call me a miserable old cynic if you wish, but I am one of those people who very often question the validity of polls and statistics, more so the latter. What is the purpose of statistics?
According to Wikipedia, “Statistics is an important field because it helps us understand the general trends and patterns in a given data set. Statistics can be used for analysing data and drawing conclusions from it. It can also be used for making predictions about future events and behaviours.”
For decades there have been numerous debates on whether statistics is a science or just hocus pocus. For me, in the Jamaican context, especially when used by governments, I have become reasonably convinced that, as Mark Twain once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Of course, the bottom line is: Do statistics tell us the truth or just give us an insight into the truth? What are we to believe in the final analysis? Poet R W Emerson says, “Truth is beautiful, without doubt, but so are lies.” Former English Prime Minister Winston Churchill expounded that “a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on”. In this regard, it has been noted that the explosion of social media has completely changed the political landscape with its ability to circulate and generate misinformation.
Unfortunately, for us in Jamaica, while this has led to a whole new aspect of journalism called political fact-checking, especially in the United States, we are yet to catch on, so we tend to rely on the Opposition party — in this case the People’s National Party (PNP) — to do it for us. Needless to say that quite often what the Opposition says is taken with a grain of salt or just outrightly dismissed as propaganda or mischief-making. But should this be so, especially if there is enough evidence to suggest that a thorough analysis, backed by facts, was done?
Take the perennial subject of employment, for example. In recent years, the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (Statin) has provided information showing a decline in the unemployment figures, with the most recent data showing a new record low of 4.5 per cent in April 2023, yet anecdotally and what one sees on the ground or “pon di corners” is counter to this revelation as one sees so many people, especially young people, inclusive more so of men, sitting idly or are otherwise engaged in illegal activities. This has led to some of us questioning the methodology that is being used to arrive at this statistical conclusion. The potent question in all of this is: When is a person “employed” or “unemployed”? The jury is still out! Is casual labour a form of employment? What about “hustling” or one-off jobs such as cutting a yard or “selling sweetie”?
Census-taking is yet another Anancy story. I am yet to be interviewed by a census taker, and most of the people I have spoken to have never seen or interacted with such a person. Also, one feedback I have received is that some of the questions are too intrusive and the process is long and tedious. This scenario would no doubt suggest that at the end of this vital exercise the truth will be a major casualty. Unless, of course, the methodology being used will have sufficiently taken into consideration such anomalies and variations. “Jack Mandora, mi no choose none!”
As for political polls, only recently we saw that the Don Anderson and Blue Dot revelations were not in tandem with each other, not to mention that there has always been the party-sponsored poll, which, in many instances, is treated with much scepticism. Then again, whichever way the cookies crumble, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, hence the need for us to read statistical information armed with an overdose of critical thinking so as not to fall prey to “trends”.
One area of national life in which statistics are oftentimes used to defend Government’s policies, befuddle, or just simply confuse is crime. Police Commissioner Major General Antony Anderson must be having some sleepless nights if he is well intentioned, given the fact that every time he stands at a podium and boasts that murders are trending down, almost automatically, there is a dramatic uptick. Indeed, the last time he carried out such an exercise the nation saw a horrifying unfolding of double, triple, and even quadruple murders, frighteningly including women and children.
And as uncanny as this may seem, are we to take the far-fetched view that Satan is at work in this sin-sick nation? A case of the “the Devil made me do it”? Or even worse, are the criminal-minded out there deliberately setting out to embarrass the goodly commissioner and ultimately the Jamaica Labour Party Administration which is yet to come up with a crime plan that really works? For all intents and purposes, these are more likely to be treated as rhetorical questions.
On the other hand, it behoves the top cop and National Security Minister Dr Horace Chang, along with their many experts and consultants, to quietly and behind the scenes utilise the data garnered (statistics included) in an interpretative and prescriptive way to tackle the issue of homicides in a scientific and proactive way instead of consistently using public relations as a smokescreen while Jah Kingdom goes to waste and is awashed in blood.
And quite frankly, if the Andrew Holness Administration takes the statistics seriously, it would be sufficiently convinced that the vast majority of Jamaica wants to see the return of capital punishment. That is the reality!
Lloyd B Smith has been involved full-time in Jamaica media for the past 48 years. He has also served as a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. He hails from western Jamaica where he is popularly known as the Governor. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or email@example.com.