This meeting took place on 8 November 2018 at the RSS. John Pullinger, the UK’s National Statistician, talked about the incendiary relationship between statistics and politics focusing on the lessons from history on this link.
He began his presentation by mentioning three recent case studies arising from official statistics that exemplify the relationship between statistics and politics: Andreas Georgiou (Greece), Jorge Todesca (Argentina) and Anar Meshimbayeva (Kazakhstan). These examples are critical to stand up and think how to build an environment where no one faces what these three people have faced when constructing statistics.
He continued by showing why there is an incendiary relationship between statistics and politics. To explain this he resorted to history. Pullinger explained that the word census was first used by in the Roman Empire. Taking a census implied registering people as well as registering their moral conduct. The change to the way we think about statistics today happened during the Enlightenment and particularly with John Sinclair, who related it to the improving the happiness of the people. In this explanation, the National Statistician pointed out that statistics follows the way power has changed.
Other important historical references Pullinger made related to the creation of the Central Statistical Office by Winston Churchill, in order to bring together all the numbers that can be accepted as useful for decision-making. He also mentioned the creation of the World Wide Web and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as the former developed a way that data can be shared and create new sources of power. In 1992, John Major passed the Citizen’s Charter, which gave a much stronger role for official statistics. The last event was the Statistical Act of 2008 that put forward the idea that statistics are not the property of ministers.
John Pullinger concluded his presentation by outlining the way forward through four recommendations:
- Emphasise that official statistics and statistics in general are an essential part of a functioning democracy. That is, people should be informed.
- Statisticians should be prepared to stand up and support each other.
- Statisticians should be educated in the use and understanding of numbers.
- Statisticians should see themselves as a community that is passionate about evidence.
A question and answer session followed.