TELLING THE TRUTH WITH STATISTICS

Fri, 23 Feb 2018 08:09:02 +0000

 

 By Prof Eustarckio

A FACT is defined as a reality that cannot logically be disputed or rejected. Facts are concrete realities that no amount of reasoning will change. Facts are not discovered; they are created and are simply acknowledged.

In the context of this article, truths are those things that are not merely acknowledged but must be discovered. The traditional oath that is required of a witness in court proceedings to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” dates back to the ancient times.

In this ancient tradition, it is a matter of being truthful and open in one person’s dealings with another, so that what is said can be taken by listeners as reliable and trustworthy. It is the discovery of truths and telling the truths that may invite the use of statistics.

Alternative Facts

This was a misleading expression that achieved prominence in the media last year aimed at using false claims publicly acceptable. This became prominent as it was used to defend a lie about the size of the inauguration ceremony crowd.

It generally stands for the growing practice of replacing facts with unproven claims during exchange of arguments. It is a concealing and misleading expression for the attempt to make false claims acceptable by presenting them as legitimate in public debate.

Tsipursky (2017) raises a fundamental question: How do we stop this pollution of truth?

He proposes a strategy of truth movement promotion.  People need to be part of this movement and join the effort of protecting the health of our democracy from the pollution of truth.

It is necessary that politicians, in particular, need to remember that there is a real world which may not be changed. It is clear that at some stage, engagement with the real world will be experienced and that is where statistics come in handy.

While some people find it easy to lie with statistics by taking advantage of lack of statistical literacy and reasoning, it is even easier to lie without them.

Telling the Whole Truth in a Post-truth Environment

Surprisingly, in 2016, it was reported that, Oxford Dictionaries chose as their Word of the Year “post-truth,” an adjective defined as: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

One reason for this is that while we can tell “the truth and nothing but the truth,” we have not told “the whole truth.”

It is like people are gradually enclosing themselves in media silos and social networks that only give them news and views they are comfortable with.

We must speak out when there is a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts and realities. Even if the people delivering these lies are not aware of it, it does not discharge them from the responsibility to check the evidence.

Presenting a view that is based on lies by omission or on purpose should be recognised as such and not go unchallenged in the “post-truth” environment. It is imperative that we do not allow ‘post truth populism’ to become ‘acceptable’ or any sort of norm.

 Power of Telling the Truth

Telling the truth can be construed as the best palliative for a stressful life.  As I was reading some publications on truth, I found Ken Makovsky’s statement interesting. He said: “I love the truth. It can be harsh or resolute but it stands as a barricade against the goblins that dance with lies in your head.

If you tell the truth you have clarity. You stand proud. You are stress-free. You never have to remember what you said because the truth is easy to recall…”

He further notes that the greatest business value in truth for the businessman is simply that it leads to trust in an increasingly fast-paced and elusive business environment. It is very common to hear an expression “pathological liar” in political arguments and counter arguments.

A pathological liar is believed to be self-absorbed, selfish, and delusional. For such people, they habitually lie and to them lying becomes compulsive to an extent that it is regarded as a psychiatric disorder.

Truth can be linked to the Biblical concept of Testament.  It is a word which means testimony, witness, evidence, or proof. All these relate to truth. As given in John 14 verse 6, Jesus says: ‘I am the way and the truth and the life.”  He says to his followers: “… you will know the truth and the truth will set you free’” (John, 8:32). Truth is considered as part of the Godly values; in Christianity, truth is divine and lying is a sin (Gramigna, 2013).

 Quality of Data

Telling the truth with statistics begins with the quality of data collected. Suitability, reproducibility, and accuracy are the attributes of scientific quality.

For reproducibility, the same result should be obtained consistently when the measurement process is repeated. For accuracy, the result should be similar to what is obtained with a “gold-standard” measurement. For suitability, which is sometimes called sensibility or face validity, the measurement process and its result should be appropriate according to both scientific and ordinary standards of “common sense.” These three attributes determine whether the raw data are trustworthy enough to receive serious attention when converted into statistics, statistical analyses, and subsequent conclusions made therefrom.

Adherence to Statistical

Principles

For statisticians, truth telling may be achieved by partly adhering to the Ten Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics. This is necessary bearing in mind the critical role of high-quality official statistical information in analysis and informed policy decision-making in support of sustainable development, peace and security, as well as for mutual knowledge and trade among countries in an increasingly connected world, demanding openness and transparency. Further bearing in mind that the essential trust of the public in the integrity of official statistical systems and confidence in statistics depend to a large extent on respect for the fundamental values and principles that are the basis of any society seeking to understand itself and respect the rights of its members. In particular, Principle 2 aims at retaining trust in official statistics, the statistical agencies need to decide according to strictly professional considerations, including scientific principles and professional ethics, on the methods and procedures for the collection, processing, storage and presentation of statistical data. Additionally, Principle 3 aims at facilitating a correct interpretation of the data, the statistical agencies are expected to present information according to scientific standards on the sources, methods and procedures of the statistics. Once these principles are followed, it is expected that statistics can indeed be used in order to tell the truth.

Honesty of Statisticians

It can be argued that in acknowledging uncertainty and quantifying it, Statisticians are in some sense more honest in their statements about the world than others who make absolute claims.

Specifically, Statisticians do not claim to know things that they cannot know. Instead, for example, they offer an interval of plausible values for an unknown parameter (Velleman 2008).

One wonders as to what then is the source of the “damn lies” view? There is evidence to show that Statisticians are taking great care to be honest within the context of statistical principles, and readily admit their uncertainty. Liars, however, usually assert their lies confidently as they strive to be believed. When a statistician’s conclusion turns out to be wrong, the error is not seen as deliberate deception. It is possible that another random sample may yield a different answer, but that is not to be blamed on the statistician as a failure of ethical data collection or analysis. We have to make it clear that good statistical analyses include judgments. Unfortunately, some people sometimes use statistics to lie.

The American Statistical Association publishes Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice, which call for the avoidance of any tendency to slant statistical work towards predetermined outcomes.

Sometimes there is clear exposure of dishonest or incompetent uses of statistics. Some people do use statistics as part of a deliberate lie.  As a society, we seriously need Statistics to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (Zakzanis, 2000).

Conclusion

Our society is in great need of truth. Let us learn to tell the truth with statistics and how to tell when others are telling the truth or lies. Telling the whole truth is not just to make some sentence which is true, it entails giving a whole account, to tell the whole story because human communication is only possible in an environment of truth and truth-telling.

A society based on systematic lying where no speech is reliable is very dangerous to itself as it has a negative impact on development. Statements or speeches that are low on the truthmeter should be discouraged in our society. This can partially be achieved by using statistics.

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