by Piet Coetzer


The power of interpretation

Final word - The power of interpretation

Statistics from the United States indicate that the unemployment rate there has dropped to its lowest level in almost four years, giving president Barack Obama a boost as the presidential race enters its final month. In South Africa statistics on ANC membership in various provinces are carefully studied to determine president Jacob Zuma’s re-election chances at the party’s elective conference in December. Interestingly it was in the realm of government that statistics were born.

Just about every source consulted in a quest to discover the origins of, and a definition for the word, statistics, uses a similar formulation. The word statistics derived from the Latin word ‘status’ which means a 'political state’.

The use of statistical methods dates back at least to the 5th century BC. In ancient times, governments collected information about the population.

Their first interest was information on the property and/or wealth available in the country or empire to establish which taxes and levies could be introduced as sources of income for the state.

Secondly, they were especially interested to know how many able-bodied men were available to provide manpower for state projects and for military campaigns aimed at adding to the wealth of the state.

Probably the best-known ancient “statistical event” dates back to the year 1BC. The Roman empire under Caesar Augustus decreed that a census to be undertaken across the entire empire. Everyone had to go to his own designated town to be registered.

This process saw Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea, the designated town for the descendants of king David. The highlight of their journey was the birth of Jesus.

The recognition of statistics as a scholarly discipline, dates back to the 9th century when the author Al-Kindi, also known as 'the Philosopher of the Arabs' or founder of Islamic or Arabic philosophy, wrote a book under the title Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages. In it he gave a detailed description of how to use statistics and so-called frequency analysis to decipher encrypted messages.

The modern concept of organising data as statistics that can be used for interpreting social, economic and other trends and making predictions started to gain traction in the 14th century.

The Florentine banker, Giovanni Villani, in his book Nuova Cronica, a 14th century history of Florence, included much statistical information on population, ordinances, commerce and trade, education and religious facilities. This earned him the reputation of being the first to introduce statistics as a positive element.

Controversy, arises however, when it comes to the realm of interpreting the figures drawn as statistics from collected data and it would seem that truth is in the eye of the beholder.

I could not find confirmation for it but I was once told that the late Dr. Anton Rupert, founder of the Rembrandt tobacco empire, is claimed to have said that he could use the same statistics that proved that people who smoke get cancer to prove that smokers generally live longer than those who don’t.

There are plenty of useable quotations around on the subject of statistics. If you want to use Rupert's argument, I suggest one from Marilyn vos Savant who once advised, “Be able to analyse statistics, which can be used to support or undercut almost any argument.”

Savant also once famously said: “Avoid using cigarettes, alcohol and drugs as alternatives to being an interesting person.”

Statistics often pose a dilemma, as is illustrated by the following quotation by Rita Mae Brown:.

“The statistics on sanity are that one out of every four Americans is suffering from some form of mental illness. Think of your three best friends. If they're okay, then it's you.”

Probably the most famous of all quotes on statistics, ascribed to former British prime minster Benjamin Disraeli by the author Mark Twain who said that“[t]here are lies, damned lies and then there are statistics.”

But it appears that Twain probably wrongly interpreted the facts when he wrote a biography of Disraeli. It turns out those words are nowhere to be found in recorded speeches by the late statesman.

According to website the earliest reference to this expression is in a speech by Leonard H. Courtney, later Lord Courtney, in New York in 1895. He said, “After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, 'lies - damn lies - and statistics’, still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.”

There is no indication that by 'Wise Statesman' Courtney was referring to any specific person, although it may be that Twain thought that he meant Disraeli.

Wherever the truth lies, for politicians there are wisdom in the words of the 19th century journalist and poet, Heinrich Heine, who once said, “You cannot feed the hungry on statistics.” 

And, then there are the cynics like the famous American writer of detective mysteries Rex Stout, who claimed that there are two kinds of statistics; the kind you look up and the kind you make up.

My favourite statistic story, perhaps because for me, it is age appropriate, is about the young journalist who asked an old man on his 90th birthday how long he thought he would still be around. Quick off the mark the old man replied, “Longer than you sonny, because statistics show that more people under 40 die every year than those over 90.” 

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Issue 392


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