How Statistics Can Help — Going Beyond COVID-19

Blog by Walter J. Radermacher at Data & Policy: “It is rightly pointed out that in the midst of a crisis of enormous dimensions we needed high quality statistics with utmost urgency, but that instead we are in danger of drowning in an ocean of data and information. The pandemic is accompanied and exacerbated by an infodemic. At this moment, and in this confusion and search for solutions, it seems appropriate to take advice from previous initiatives and draw lessons for the current situation. More than 20 years ago in the United Kingdom, the report “Statistics — A Matter of Trust” laid the foundations for overcoming the previously spreading crisis of confidence through a solidly structured statistical system. This report does not stand alone in international comparison. Rather, it is one of a series of global, European and national measures and agreements which, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, have strengthened official statistics as the backbone of policy in democratic societies, with the UN Fundamental Statistical Principles and the EU Statistics Code of Practice being prominent representatives. So, if we want to deal with our current difficulties, we should address precisely those points that have emerged as determining factors for the quality of statistics, with the following three questions: What (statistical products, quality profile)? How (methods)? Who (institutions)? The aim must be to ensure that statistical information is suitable for facilitating the resolution of conflicts by eliminating the need to argue about the facts and only about the conclusions to be drawn from them.

In the past, this task would have led relatively quickly to a situation where the need for information would have been directed to official statistics as the preferred provider; this has changed recently for many reasons. On the one hand, there is the danger that the much-cited data revolution and learning algorithms (so-called AI) are presented as an alternative to official statistics (which are perceived as too slow, too inflexible and too expensive), instead of emphasizing possible commonalities and cross-fertilization possibilities. On the other hand, after decades of austerity policies, official statistics are in a similarly defensive situation to that of the public health system in many respects and in many countries: There is a lack of financial reserves, personnel and know-how for the new and innovative work now so urgently needed.

It is therefore required, as in the 1990s, to ask the fundamental question again, namely, do we (still and again) really deserve official statistics as the backbone of democratic decision-making, and if so, what should their tasks be, how should they be financed and anchored in the political system?…(More)”.