Statistics seldom tell the whole story
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Experts can marshal statistics to prove or discredit whatever they wish. Three examples show how insidious, but effective, the technique can be.
Apr 05 2013. By: Carol Goar
According to the number-crunchers, our beliefs are wrong, our instincts misguided.
The gap between the wealthy elite and the rest of population hasn’t widened significantly, York University professor George Fallis says in an essay in the current edition of the Literary Review of Canada. “It is said that Canada has a severe and growing problem of income inequality — the rich get richer while the poor get poorer and the middle class struggles to stay even. The picture is not accurate,” he argues, using a battery of statistics as proof.
Foreign aid doesn’t reduce global poverty, says the Globe and Mail. Giving cash and building roads, bridges and dams won’t raise the living standard of people in extreme poverty, the newspaper argued in a March 30 editorial, using global income figures to support its counterintuitive conclusion. “There is no need to measure success by larger budget allocations or some set percentage of Canada’s GDP.”
The job market isn’t underperforming, says Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. “Not only have we recovered all the jobs lost during the recession, we’ve added almost a half-million more,” he told Canadians in his March 29 budget.
Could our eyes be deceiving us? Could we be misinterpreting what’s happening around us? Could helping the world’s poor be passé?
Before accepting these verdicts, let’s take a second look.
Fallis wrote his article, “Canada’s Surprising One Percent,” to correct the “jumbled and incoherent” complaints of the protestors who spearheaded the Occupy Movement. Their slogan — “we are the 99 per cent” — was unfair to the 1 per cent, he argued. Only 15 of the 255,000 Canadians in that category — including the CEOs of the banks and a few big corporations — belong to the $10-million-a-year club. The rest are doctors, lawyers, senior bureaucrats, heads of public agencies and media stars. “The main source of income of the 1 per cent is just like the main source of income of average Canadians: their jobs.”
He’s correct that the demonstrators didn’t get their fractions quite right. But mathematical precision was never the point. They wanted to spark a debate about the disparity between the superaffluent and the majority.
There is an imbalance, Fallis admits. The average chief executive earns 220 times as much as the average worker. And trouble signals are flashing: swelling food bank use, chronic homelessness, increasing inequality of incomes. But overall, he insists, “the steady reduction in poverty is one of Canada’s great accomplishments of the last 30 years.”
The Globe and Mail wrote its editorial in defence of the Harper government’s decision to fold the Canadian International Development Agency into the Department of Foreign Affairs. In today’s world, aid is a just trickle outstripped 10-to-one by foreign investment, it pointed out. Moreover, handouts had little to do with the remarkable progress in China, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Nigeria. Trade liberalization, technology, productivity gains and domestic policies turned them into economic tigers.
What the editorial didn’t establish was any link between foreign investment and potable water, health clinics, schools or community markets. What it didn’t mention was the social and environmental damage western capital can do to developing countries. Nor did it offer any proof that the benefits of North American commerce filter down to the poorest people.
Flaherty highlighted Canada’s job creation record to counter the impression that this is a jobless recovery and refute claims that those laid off in the recession haven’t found work. “As job creators, we have an enviable record,” he maintained.
What he didn’t address was the number of highly educated young people trapped in entry-level jobs; the number of blue-collar workers whose jobs will never return; the number of part-time, contract and temporary workers who don’t earn enough to lift themselves out of poverty; and the number of job applicants who send out hundreds of resumés without a bite.
Everyone knows these people. They’re our kids, our relatives, our friends, our former colleagues.
Statistics have their uses, but they seldom tell the whole story and often leave out the parts that matter most.
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