Why freedom of numbers matters

What do you do if you’re in charge of a country and things are not going your way?

Last week, President Erdogan of Turkey was presented with the unwelcome news that the inflation rate in his country was close to 50%, with the Turkish lira in free fall. Rather than questioning his own policy, or blaming the pandemic/opposition/weather (as so many other politicians have done before), he opted to fire the chief statistician.

He’s not the first. The Government of Greece prosecuted its chief statistician in 2013 over a dispute about economic statistics. The chief statistician of Fiji was marched out of his office by security guards a few months ago in a row over poverty data.

Statisticians may make unlikely heroes, but these are the people who stand up for the truth against governments who are prepared to go to extreme lengths to say it isn’t so. They, and their allies in the global movement for open data, are just as critical to democracy as the journalists standing up against limits to free speech. Freedom of expression applies to numbers as well as words.

Politicians must govern the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. As the Vice President of Ghana, and champion of good data, Mahamudu Bawumia put it, ‘Statistics deliver both good and bad news, but effective governments need to hear both.’ Good data, in other words, leads to good policy — and bad data puts governments at the mercy of unseen and unknown events.

Suppressing or fixing the data to make the economy look better can make it perform worse. A World Bank paper found that producing and releasing regular, credible, statistics, can have a bigger positive impact on economic growth than opening trade or investing in education. The authors compared countries with stronger and weaker data systems, and found that those with stronger systems tended to grow faster, even after controlling for other variables.

Their advice to autocrats considering concealing the truth from citizens? ‘Data opacity can be used as a tool to keep citizens in the dark, but it might come at the cost of foregoing opportunities to increase the economic pie’.

COVID-19 has raised the political temperature around data even further. In the USA, the Republican Governor of Florida has been accused of falsifying data to undercount the number of cases and deaths. Not all state officials have been prepared to go along with the deception: whistleblowers have spoken out after being asked to report fake numbers, and a data analyst in Florida found armed police at her door in the middle of the night in December 2020 after setting up her own COVID-19 dashboard to report the truth. At over 26,000 cases per 100,000 people, Florida has experienced more COVID cases than the US average of 22,773 per 100,000.

Others have gone even further. In May 2020, then-President Magufuli ordered the authorities in Tanzania to stop reporting on COVID-19 cases altogether. With no data to prove otherwise, he declared the pandemic over in June of that year. He died of what opposition politicians claimed was COVID-19 in March 2021.

Where does it end? Independent statistics are a tool for accountability, but those that are doctored become an instrument of propaganda. In George Orwell’s 1984, the hero Winston Smith is employed at the Ministry of Truth to retrofit statistics to suit whatever Big Brother defines as reality on any given day. Although, “statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in their rectified version. A great deal of the time you were expected to make them up out of your head.”

As Orwell put it: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” If we care about democracy we need to take attempts to muzzle statistics just as seriously as attempts to suppress the media or impose any other limits on freedom of speech. Set the statistics free!

Explore more thinking around data and democracy through the Data Values Project.



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