Bruce Bisset: Come to census over vital stats

By Bruce Bisset

Seems to me in these days of information overload, targeted marketing and media mass-manipulation, it's far too easy to propagandise (or invent) any so-called "fact" to turn it to advantage. Or, as the saying goes, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.

That saying itself is a good example: A version first appeared in a letter to the editor in June 1891, referencing it only as a popular witty remark, and variations on the theme (such as "fibs, lies, and experts") were bandied about during the late-19th century without anyone claiming authorship.

In 1906 Mark Twain attributed the words to Benjamin Disraeli, and though no other source has linked it to that British Prime Minister, his popularity has entrenched the "fact" Disraeli coined it.

Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels summarised his own work by writing: "It is not propaganda's task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success." But even he would be agog at how well today's political machinery makes sparkling successes of inanities and foibles - especially when it works to discredit science and common sense.

Business, of course, has an identical approach; since the street-hawkers of ancient days, advertising has consistently gone out of its way to mislead, exaggerate and mythologise in order to promote sales.

Sometimes marketers shoot themselves in doing so: Nike's "I am the bullet in the chamber" tagline for Oscar Pistorius has proved tragically prophetic. The ad campaign has been hastily pulled, but what's interesting is that no-one's asking why a runner with no feet should be promoting footwear.

See? A myth - but it works. Or did, until he shot his girlfriend.

The point is to illuminate that "facts" are consumed as a moveable feast. But when someone asks, "Show me the facts", I'd suggest the only place you're likely to find anything worthy of the name is in statistics.

For despite the opening quote, genuine unbiased statistical data (or as near that ideal as practicable) provides the only reasonable status of a given thing at a given time; and while results may be interpreted in many ways, the figures themselves stand alone.

Remember, statistical data is the basis of all planning. So in terms of planning a country's future, the most important - indeed, vital - statistics are those collected during each census, which tallies not just a segment but a nation's population. To achieve its purpose that data needs to be as accurate as possible. Leaving aside people's propensity to play games with questions about religion, history suggests it is.

Given our current tally-up was postponed because of the Christchurch earthquake, it's more important this one is robust; planners of all sorts, from government departments to businesses, are hanging out to close the now-7-year data gap.

So it's crucial everyone participates. Without accurate data, it would be impossible to know whether an area will soon need a new school, or upgraded transport links, or more land for housing, and so on. Or not.

Yet some folk regard the exercise with scorn, and appear willing to blame "the Government" for getting things wrong even if they'd otherwise lack the data to get it right.

Sure, "they" might still make poor decisions, but it's not the figures that lie, it's the way people add to or subtract other bits and pieces to fit a predetermined agenda. And the bottom line is, if the data says one thing and a politician another, you can be fairly sure the politician's lying.

You may think to see examples of this in Hawke's Bay in the debate around the supposed benefits of amalgamation and the water storage project; however both are highly coloured by opinion, with (so far) very little statistical fact.

Moreover statistics can't paint the whole story; other debates, like the importance of the Gisborne railway or the impact on farmers of new land-use regulation, either neglect or play-down social and environmental concerns if they are too focused on "hard" economics.

Which may be what Leonard Courtney, who used the "lies and statistics" phrase in 1895 before becoming president of the Royal Statistical Society, was indicating - a fact in the wrong hands can still be made a piece of string.

That's the right of it.

Bruce Bisset is a freelance writer and poet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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