math numbers.jpeg We see numbers everywhere. In the business world and in the media, conclusions are drawn from numbers through charts of statistics. Because numbers are objective, most people regard them as fact. Subjective conclusions are more believable if they are propped up by statistics. But with these numbers, are conclusions accurate in themselves?

The French Association Pénombre was created in June 1993, to discuss the numbers we hear and read about in our daily lives. They describe their Association as a public space for the reflection and exchange of ideas on the usage of numbers in social debates in justice, sociology, the media and statistics.

René Padieu wrote an analysis of the statistics provided by the United Nations Development Programme Report of 1997. The UNDP stated that poverty can be eradicated if the combined wealth of the seven richest individuals were put to use:

358 X > 2,600,000,000 Y

With X being the average fortune of the 358 richest people in the world and Y the average yearly earnings of the 45% poorest of the world’s inhabitants, according to the Annual report on human development produced by the United Nations Development Programme.

Seen in La Croix (a French national daily newspaper) dated June 13, 1997: “In today’s world, with its one billion illiterates, 160 million malnourished children and 110 million non-school-attenders, the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) [states that] it would cost some 33 billion dollars a year for ten years to provide access to water, health and education for the entire world population. The same amount again would be needed to eradicate poverty everywhere. The total bill, some 66 billion dollars, may seem gigantic, but it is perfectly within reach, according to the UNDP, which points out that the fortune of the seven richest people in the world exceeds that sum.”

Comparing figures may give people ideas, but it is important that those ideas not be wrong. After the first start of indignation, let us do a little reckoning. With 33 billion $/year spent for ten years, we are told, we could eradicate poverty. That means that at the end of those ten years, there would not be anything more to be done; the problem would be taken cared of once and for all?

According to the text cited, we understand that the sum of 66 billion dollars corresponds to the fortune of the seven richest people in the world. That means that by confiscating their fortune, we may finance the first year. What is to be done for the following years?

For the second year, we would have to go on to the next richest people on the list. Since they are somewhat less rich than the first group, we would have to take more of them (how many is not said). The third year, even more rich people would be needed, and so on, so as to mobilize 660 billions, in all, rather than 66. How many people would have to be touched for our ten-year programme? Even if this number is quite small in regard to the world’s six billion human beings, it would be much less striking than the figure of seven announced here. Doesn’t throwing the figure seven at us seem somewhat abusive, if not to say a bit dishonest?

Seven Golden Men, by René Padieu

Human Development Reports

Here is another interesting report on a statistician’s conclusions on workplace violence, citing that France has the highest rate of workplace violence. The statistical study was erroneous. A background check on the statistics was made by a member of Pénombre who exposed the errors:

On July 20, 1998, 8:20pm, the news report on France 2 (one of the main French TV channels): According to the ILO, France has the highest rate of workplace violence: 11.2% of men and 8.9% of women are allegedly victims of violence each year. France also tops the list for sexual harassment (again, at the workplace), with an annual frequency of 19.8%, while figures for the other Western European countries range from 7.6% (Sweden) to 0.8% (Austria). There is never much time for in-depth analysis on TV, but the commentator does add “maybe that’s because our statistics are compiled better!” A member of Pénombre, hearing that, can only react with a: good for that newscaster!

It is in fact always problematic to compare surveys between different countries, or at least, the comparability should be carefully questioned. It is worth noting and praising the journalist who, although unable to check on the information, is on the lookout. Since I myself am in a better position to make that check, I decided it was a good idea to look into the subject, if only to report my conclusion to that vigilant journalist.

I thought I would discover that the formulation of the questions, in different languages and different sociological contexts, could hardly yield comparable answers. The feeling of having been victim to an aggression is highly subjective and context-linked. I therefore asked to see the questionnaires. This was a “victimization” survey conducted in some thirty countries under the auspices of the United Nations. It covered attacks of all sorts (affecting individuals and property), and the workplace was only one particular aspect, isolated from the overall survey for the needs of the ILO.

To my surprise, the French questionnaire contained no questions about the workplace. The reference questionnaire (in English) did contain such questions, as did the French version of the Swiss questionnaire. The problem was radically different, then. It was no longer a matter of the comparability of a question, but rather, of discovering how it had been possible to establish findings although the question had not been put.

I will spare you the details of my investigation of the investigation. My conclusion was as follows: This was the third time this survey had been conducted. The workplace had been introduced for the second version, and since France had not participated in that second version, it had kept the same questionnaire as for the first. No-one had noticed the omission. Subsequently, in its automatic analysis of the responses for all of the countries, the central computer had replaced the missing question by the next one. So the question did get answered, after all, but the answer was meaningless.

There are at least two lessons to be drawn from this story :

– First, that the organization of this type of surveys , involving a number of institutes, elicits a loss of control over the technical aspects of the process (checking of the questions and checking of the data collected);

– Secondly, that regardless of the technique, it is of some concern that all those individuals who had an opportunity to see those results accepted such a tremendous difference in the order of magnitude without a wink. No-one was surprised. The experts in violence all got busy explaining with the utmost seriousness the whys and wherefores of the phenomenon, and the dangers involved, with no astonishment over its magnitude.

No-one. Except the commentator on France 2, who had some suspicion. And it was the accidental hearing of that commentator by a curious statistician that let the cat out of the bag. If such is the case, then why conduct a survey, if the same speeches are to be heard irrespective of the findings? The discovery was made too late to prevent a publication such as in Le Monde – Initiatives (a thematic weekly) dated October 7th from reproducing the piece.

Jetlagged Statistician: Is There a Pilot in the Computer? by Clara Halbschatten
August 1996


Subject post suggested by: Georges Haour