PLAYING WITH NUMBERS

THAT GREECE FUDGED ITS CRITICAL ECONOMIC data in its declarations to the EU is by now well known.  But Greece is far from alone in being economical with the truth. Statistical data released by corporates, governments, or for that matter research institutions , all contain a curious mixture  of  half truths , guesstimates, and information which can only be termed  computational sleight of hand : essentially, facts and figures presented  “to serve the purpose for which such data is intended.”  At the end of the day, truth is the biggest casualty.

TODAY’S  Economic Times, FOR INSTANCE, REPORTS serious inaccuracies in the Socio Economic & Caste Census 2011 data released by the Government of India.  #Jean Dreze says that  of the 640 districts covered, data for 628 is in the draft list and only 277 is in the final list. Of the 35 states and Union Territories , 21 are yet to publish their final list.  Besides, the Government of India is reluctant to release core caste data and the underlying rationale for withholding this information from the public domain is, reportedly, to stave off demands for proportional representation upon the discovery that only less than a handful of upper castes ran the entire bureaucracy in India !!

DELIBERATE MISSTATEMENTS OF STATISTICS IN PUBLIC DEBATE is not merely confined to India.  In recent times, facts were consistently  fudged  in the United States by the opponents of #Obamacare and their sympathisers in the media.  It is a big relief that the U.S. Supreme Court has  finally forced the opponents of the #Affordable Care Act to lay their arms to rest.  Similarly, the ink is also not dry yet on the debate on inequality.  #The Financial Times  did its bit to contest #Thomas Piketty’s finding that inequality has increased over the years but had to grudgingly agree with the economist in the face of incontrovertible evidence.  The newspaper should have remembered Lord Acton’s dictum – facts are sacred, comment is free.

BECAUSE NUMBERS HAVE SWAY OVER VIRTUALLY everything that we do, it is hardly surprising that data scientists are now in great demand.  The challenges they face are overwhelming indeed given the exponential increase in data that has to be mined for proper analysis and policy making.  In their books #”Freakonomics”  and #”Superfreakonomics”,  #Steven Levitt and #Stephen Dubner presented nuggets of data that held their readers in thrall.  However, rigorous data analysis has little room for drama.  Properly done and presented, data analysis should aid and not deter enlightened policy making both for Governments and corporates alike.

DATA FOUND IN THE MEDIA   AT LARGE has been particularly tendentious.  Besides, the extent of social inequity gets swept under the carpet most of the time in public debates by mischievous juxtaposition of information.  In the Indian context, for every #Surjit Bhalla appearing in a public debate we also need a #P.  Sainath to peel away the insularity with which we wrap ourselves with.  #Paul Krugman aptly said that “today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.”  If policy making proceeds on the basis of doctored data,  things will surely spin out of control  as soon as the mists of information asymmetry disappear and the man in the street becomes restive.

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