< The Stat Police


Friday, June 19, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Last week, the White House sent out a press release saying the Obama administration has created or saved more than 150,000 jobs in the first hundred days and will create or save another 600,000 in the next hundred days. But when reporters looked for the basis of these authoritative-sounding numbers, they found they were based on – not much. It turns out it was a guess, based on a 16-page White House memo. The creation of bad statistics and the distortion of good ones for political purposes is enough to cause the public to lose faith in government numbers. The U.K. lost so much faith in them that, in fact, the government decided they had to do something. In 2007, Parliament approved a new agency, the U.K. Statistics Authority, whose job would be to hold government agencies accountable for the numbers they released to the public. Sir Michael Scholar is Chairman of the Stats Authority and he joins us now. Sir Michael, welcome to On the Media.

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay. How egregious was the voodoo arithmetic before your agency was created?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: Well, it was pretty bad. A number of surveys were done which showed that only one in six thought that British official statistics were not manipulated by politicians. The level of trust was very low.

BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me an example of how numbers were tortured for political purposes?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: Well, in - I'll go back a few years. The numbers unemployed in Britain after the recession in the early 1980s rose every month. It became a really big political issue. And the government changed the definition of unemployment 23 times in the space of as many months. And every time they changed the definition, the redefinition reduced the number.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, that was then, this is now. Does your agency truth squad statistics that have already been publicly floated by bureaucrats or politicians, or do you have a mechanism for preventing their release in the first place?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: Well, the way in which we are set up, it’s twofold. The major British official statistics department that produces the unemployment numbers, GDP numbers, that department is under the control of my board and not under the control of the executive. And the rest of the statistics are subject to regulatory intervention by the authority which I chair.

BOB GARFIELD: So if the prime minister, for example, invokes a number that sounds fishy to you, you are empowered to vet it and force him to make changes where necessary?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: We are empowered to monitor, comment and report to Parliament. What then happens depends upon the U.K. Parliament. I don't have the power to fine the prime minister or – you know, there are no punitive powers that have been given to my authority in relation to any official body.

BOB GARFIELD: Have you invoked or availed yourself of that discretion with Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, as of yet?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: Not in relation to Gordon Brown directly, but in December I wrote a letter to the head official in Number 10 Downing Street and I complained of the use of some statistics, and, of course, I published it and gave it to the media. And the effect of that was that within 24 hours I had a written apology from the Prime Minister’s Office for this misuse of statistics.

BOB GARFIELD: You’re chartered [LAUGHS] by your government to identify essentially the lies of the same government. Does that ever get a little awkward? I mean, do you often find yourself lunching alone?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: [LAUGHS] Well, I don't lunch alone very often, as a matter of fact. But yeah, it is sometimes a bit lonely. Even though they've created you to be a critic, when we come on stream and start making criticisms, here and there, we find that we lose friends pretty quickly.

BOB GARFIELD: You’re Frankenstein’s monster.

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that’s one way of putting it.

BOB GARFIELD: Four or five years ago, notoriously, a NASA release on climate change issues, global warming, was heavily redacted by political appointees to soften numbers or to include statistics which would seem to minimize the threat of manmade climate change. Could that incident have happened in the U.K. in 2009? SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: I think it’s very unlikely to happen as a result of the existence of my authority. We will write a report to Parliament, we will criticize that agency, and there will be on past record a public outcry about it.

BOB GARFIELD: Mark Twain once said something along the lines of, it takes two people to really harm you, one to libel you and a friend to get the news back to you right away.


BOB GARFIELD: The government can release all of the faulty statistics it wishes, but if the press were not so quick to accept them as God’s truth they wouldn't be so damaging. Since your agency came online, have you noticed that the press has itself been more vigilant on these issues and has done better reporting on statistical questions?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: No, I don't think it’s the case. They're looking for big political stories. And when I criticized the prime minister’s office, my authority was all over every newspaper and every news, TV and radio news channel for 24 hours. When I criticize, say, road casualty statistics, if I were to do so, well, I might get a small mention at the bottom of page 93.

BOB GARFIELD: Let me come back to where we started this conversation. Is there any evidence, in the time that your agency has been doing business, that the public’s distrust of official numbers has changed?

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: I don't think so. I think in a way it might even be the opposite because I think the first impact on people is to think, hah, yeah, well, this is what we've always expected. These figures are fixed. They're phony. They're wrong. It’s when you get to the second stage that people think, ah, this authority exists and this authority is a guarantor upon which we can depend. I, I think we're beginning to see a bit of that, but I think it'll take a long time.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, Sir Michael, thank you so much for joining us.

SIR MICHAEL SCHOLAR: Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD: Sir Michael Scholar is Chairman of the U.K. Statistics Authority.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a new Freedom of Information official has your back, and reading Little Dorrit four ways.

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR.