Of a fishy tale and statistics!

Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

Most tales one comes across often are fishy. Some, to be sure, are more fishy than others, but fishy nevertheless. One was looking through the archives of the past few years when one came across a fishy tale of immense proportions revealed by the New York Times and emanating from China of all places. One craves the indulgence of the gentle reader to go over some of the details.
The tale, then, goes something like this. It appears that for years on end marine scientists had been raising the alarm that far too much fish was being caught from the world’s oceans and calling for drastic measures to curb “wide-spread over-fishing”. The reported global yield of marine fisheries continued to rise during the decade of 1990s, mainly due to the statistics provided by China. There appeared to be a catch in this. According to the New York Times, evidence surfacing in the 2000s revealed that there had been “substantial over-reporting” during the 1990s, that too mainly by China.
What happened was that, under the system of matching result with plan, the same set of bureaucrats was responsible for not only counting the catch but also meeting targets to increase it. So, in typical bureaucratic fashion, they took the easy way out by simply exaggerating the count to meet their allotted goals. As a result, instead of rising by an average of 330,000 tonnes per year since 1988 as recorded in United Nations data, the world catch had actually been declining by an average of 360,000 tonnes per year!
Marine experts expressed the opinion that the findings of the study published in the journal Nature that led to these startling conclusions had major implications for world food supplies and for the contentious battles to cut back on oversized fishing fleets. The authors of the study noted that the greatest impact of the finding that catch statistics had, in fact, been inflated may be to engender complacency about the state of the world’s marine stock and about “over-fishing”.
So much for the fishy statistics! Now for the wider implications! Statistics, as is well known, is big business in today’s world beset with figures. All the world’s plans and strategies have been, and are, based essentially on statistical data. And who supplies this data? They are none other than the petty bureaucrats who are well aware of the powers of their super-pens. One decimal point this way or that can change the fate of the world. Genuine mistakes aside, a deliberate slip of the mighty pen can create nothing less than havoc.
Nature’s study of the world’s fisheries aforesaid should have provided the incentive to carry out studies in other vital fields too where faulty statistics, whether willful or accidental, may have resulted in mischief. It should also have led to the obvious conclusion that over reliance on statistical data can prove fatal. If only the international data processing agencies were to look with a wee bit of suspicion at the statistical figures supplied to them, they might discover to their surprise that all that glitters is not gold or – given the rocketing price of precious metal – even its nearest replica.
Putting the matter of fisheries aside, one could perhaps turn to a wider canvas and take a closer look at the sorcery of statistics. Statisticians, whose forte lies in juggling with figures, often tend to forget that that figures alone – however impressive – cannot stand on their own. Figures are like bones of a skeleton that need not only to be fleshed out with facts but also interpreted with circumspection as well as a sense of realism to project true picture. This latter, regrettably is much too often lacking.
Statistics can be used to prove anything and everything. Figures – taken on their own – can be devastatingly misleading. So-called technical experts have invariably had the regrettable tendency to take undue advantage of the obscure tools of their trade to throw the layman off the right track. Give the statistician – and his cousins once removed: the accountant and the economist – enough latitude and the three amongst themselves would weave the rosy web of well-stacked figures to boggle the simple minds of the unsuspecting common folk. We, in the Land of the Pure have spent the better part of our lives being led up the garden path by our so-called planners with the help of the inevitable web of statistics. Even when the statistics are proffered as proof of the country well on the way to emulate the Asian Tigers, the man in the street, bereft as he is of his basic wants, is left to ponder where his and his family’s next meal is going to come from. Man cannot live by statistics alone. No wonder, then, that over the ages right-thinking people have invariably looked upon statistics and statisticians with a generous measure of suspicion.
If one cares to take a closer look, one finds that modern civilisation and all else connected with it are dependant more upon figures and less on facts. As the fish saga aforementioned shows, many, if not most, of these figures may well be ‘doctored’ one way or the other. Let us take another example. Now that everybody and his uncle celebrate the annual “World Population Day”, has a thought been given to what havoc the statisticians and their ilk may have played with the world population figures? How can one possibly be certain that the population figures put out by a particular government are what they are purported to be? Chances are that the figures may have been subjected to juggling and that too on a massive scale. Gives one food for thought that; does it not? The whole rigmarole of statistics smells fishy, as they say. It is hardly for us lesser mortals to challenge what may well turn out to be a truism!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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