In Henrik Ibsen’s play, An Enemy of the People, a town is divided over whether or not to clean up the municipal baths following a water contamination report. But a doctor’s good intentions to save the town come up against special interests. In the end, the facts are rejected, the truth reshaped and the water is not cleansed. As for the doctor, he is cast out as the enemy.
Though Ibsen’s play was published in 1882, its moral still applies today. Indeed, we are living in a time of so-called “alternative facts”, in which the truth is vilified and experts are outcasts. The term “post-truth” was even the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year for 2016.
The trouble is that the spread and misuse of false data poisons public opinion and undermines proper political debate. Fake news and alternative facts are lies by other names, yet can be used to influence or manipulate opinions. This clearly carries serious risks for democracy.
Could this destructive wave be a by-product of our information revolution? Take social media, for instance. Social media has many advantages from a statistician’s point of view. For a start, it can be a valuable new source of data garnered from the internet that provides more granular and timely information about people’s living conditions. But given the plethora of information on social media–90% of all data ever produced emerged in the last few years–differentiating between “hard facts” and the reproduction of somebody else’s non-factual opinions becomes difficult. Social media has largely replaced traditional media as a source of information for people. That means that opinions are now formed in a more direct, immediate and inter-active way than before, within self-defined circles of friends, families and think-alikes. As a result, feelings start to matter more than facts and figures, and, as in Ibsen’s play, lead people to turn against the truth and the right course of action.
Take immigration, for instance. OECD data have shown that immigrants bring long-term net fiscal benefits to their countries of destination, since what they contribute in taxes over time outweighs what they receive in benefits. But such facts have not been picked up in most public debates on migration.
Where does all of this leave organisations such as the OECD, where facts and data are our raw material? How can we respond? The answer is simple: good data and factual evidence are essential for robust policymaking. Governments, businesses and citizens alike need reliable statistics to gauge where we are and plan where we want to go. Countries adhering to international agreements, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Climate Agreement, need quality statistics to help them measure progress. The OECD plays an important role in contributing to these statistics and will continue to do so because not having them leaves countries flying blind.
Consequently, disturbing as it is, national statistical offices and international organisations like the OECD have no choice but to tackle the post-truth wave head on. They need to reassert the “brand” value and authority of official statistics, just as a flight to value has already been detected in the media, with sharp rise recorded in subscriptions in traditional news sources, such as the New York Times, in recent months.
Of course, being “official” is not enough, and states have been guilty of manipulating figures too. That is why international cooperation is so important, so that national statistical offices in different countries not only co-operate with each other, but put each other under pressure to develop data that are transparent, comparable and reliable. The OECD Recommendation on Good Statistical Practice in 2015, based on the UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics adopted in 1994 and reaffirmed in 2014, underlines the need for data that garner trust, and that are properly explained and transparent.
In this post-truth environment, the responsibilities of producers of official statistics are twofold: one, to produce high quality statistical information that people and decision makers can trust, and to disseminate it more clearly, and more widely on all the media platforms that people actually use, to help them form their opinions and take their decisions based on verifiable facts.
But they must also ensure that official statistics are relevant and address people’s concerns. Big data and new technologies can help in this regard, by complementing traditional sources to produce data that capture what truly matters in people’s everyday life. This is what the OECD has done, for instance with its ground-breaking work on measuring well-being, under the Better Life Initiative.
The OECD has also already made great progress in making its vast data more accessible to the general public with the development of its new data portal and making its data open, accessible and free. And with our various public forums, including the annual OECD Forum, the biennial World Forum on Statistics, Knowledge and Policy, and the online innovations such as the OECD Better Life Index, we are stepping up our interaction with the public, too.
We are also now pushing our data to multiple channels and devices, such as smart phones, blogs, and even YouTube, and we are becoming more active on Facebook, too.
We must also go beyond issuing cold data, and do better at understanding people’s feelings and judgements. In particular, we must be vigilant in situations where our objective data diverge from people’s own perceptions, and analyse the reasons for these gaps. This is what we are doing as part of our work on analysing the determinants of subjective well-being, on measuring trust or with our interactive Compare Your Income tool, for instance.
In short, official statisticians must not shy away. They need to speak out with confidence, and no longer expect the facts to speak for themselves. Under the UN principles, official statistical agencies are entitled to comment on the erroneous interpretation of data. Evidence matters, and many issues, such as climate change for example, are far too important to get the facts wrong. To compete in a world of alternative facts and posttruths, official statisticians must have well-formed and powerful narratives with which to convince people.
The OECD has shown its ability to do this on a range of policy issues, from school performance to international tax transparency. It is a skill at which all organisations involved in official statistics will have to become better and better in the future. By marshalling robust data and presenting compelling arguments with authority on platforms that people use, experts in statistics will not be cast as enemies, but as servants of the people.
Note: To address these issues and help national statistical offices and international organisations improve their communications strategies, the OECD is organising a conference on the theme of “Providing facts where opinions are formed: The role of Official Statistics in an evolving communication society”, to be held at the OECD Conference Centre in Paris, on 6-7 October 2017.
References and further reading
UN (2014), UN Fundamental Principles of Official Statistics, https://unstats.un.org/unsd/dnss/gp/FP-New-E.pdf, 29 January
Recommendation of the OECD Council on Good Statistical Practice, www.oecd.org/statistics/good-practice-toolkit/Brochure-Good-Stat-Practices.pdf
Value of Official Statistics: Convincing our stakeholders, measuring value of statistics, Article by UNECE, CSO Ireland and OECD in the OECD Statistics Newsletter, No 65, November 2016, https://issuu.com/oecd-stat-newsletter/docs/oecd-statisticsnewsletter- 11-2016/3
OECD Forum 2017 Issues
OECD Better Life Initiative, www.oecd.org/statistics/better-life-initiative.htm
OECD Better Life Index, www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org
OECD Compare Your Income, www.compareyourincome.org
OECD Chief Statistician and Director, OECD Statistics Directorate
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