Figures guru as entertainer? you heard right

23 Jul

Statistics used to scare the hell out of many us when we were still at school. Still does for some. At that time, tables, charts and graphs of every sort were avoided like the plague. When school ended, many breathed a collective sigh of relief. But the relief was short-lived. The workplace was filled with more of the intimidating figures in their various presentations. And this time you were on your own. There were no smart students to help you with them.

School was not, of course all about deciphering what appeared like encrypted codes. There were some of us who found comfort in the beauty of words – their rhythm, lyricism, fluidity and even vagueness. At least words were more mentally liberating because they did not impose a precision that put you in a corner. With words, there was always space for manoeuvre.

You might say the phobia for figures was really a manifestation of mental indiscipline. But others will argue that the exactness of figures is too limiting and excludes other factors that may have a bearing on a given subject – that, in fact, they are an oversimplification, even a distortion of reality.

Statisticians and others in related fields acknowledge the limitation and attempt to go around it by introducing something called “variables”, some of which must remain constant in order to validate whatever is being postulated.

The fellows who love words will say that, although they lack mathematical exactness, they have the ability to communicate meaning in more pleasing, personal and varied ways. There are no variables, and certainly no constants. They can make you laugh or cry, raise your anger or spirits, send you into ecstasy or depression. They can cause war, but they are also a vehicle to peace. That’s the power of words.

No doubt the debate will continue between students – those with the aptitude to organise thought in neat, precise arrangements and others with a more wandering imagination that nonetheless paints an exact picture.

But the debate will probably overlook what it has always done – the cause for the figures phobia in the first place. The responsibility for turning statistics into unfriendly things lies in the way they are presented to the public. You can appreciate the confusion and intimidation they cause when the cold, impersonal facts are presented by an equally cold, detached fellow with his own phobia and deficiency – of words.

I discovered recently that statistics can actually be fun. Yes, fun. I learned that phobia and morbid thoughts are induced and not innate qualities of figures. And the source of my discovery? Surprise, surprise – a statistician.

The man who made figures look so nice and simple was Professor Hans Gosling, a Swedish statistician, doctor and population expert. He was presenting a paper on global population and economic trends, and their impact on resources at a conference on the sustainable use of water, food and energy at Oxford University on July 12 this year.

Naturally, he used graphs and models to make the point that the Malthusian prophesy of a population growth that will far outstrip the world’s resources and lead to misery all round was a scare-crow. Thomas Malthus is famous for his apocalyptic theory that food production increases in arithmetical proportions while population grows in geometric progression that has informed population studies in one way or the other since the nineteenth century. Gosling, argued that, in fact, more people were good for economic growth and development.

This is similar to the position of our own President Paul Kagame who thinks that a large population is not exactly the issue. He said at the same conference that a larger population can be a solution, not a problem, because it can be an important productive force and drive socio-economic transformation.

Professor Gosling used ordinary words and everyday examples to explain the graphs and charts. He was so many things rolled into one and the combination made his presentation so enjoyable, so humorous that he had the audience laughing throughout. He used a magician’s skill of pulling so many things out of the hat to illustrate complex statistics. The professor was like a comedian – he entertained but also informed. He was the great teacher who broke down difficult questions into easily comprehendible stuff.  To use a contemporary catchphrase, he made statistics user-friendly.

Little wonder, Professor Gosling is referred to as an “Edutainer”.

In the space of twenty minutes, he had banished whatever lingering phobia for figures I still harboured.

However, he did not dispel the mistrusts that sometimes accompany statistics. Nearly every month an index of one sort or another is published by a think tank or NGO to explain a particular state of parts of the world. Usually they are about the third world. There are many think tanks that specialise on Africa without any of their staff ever having set foot on the continent. Still, they publish reports on Africa that are taken to be authoritative.

The latest of these is the Failed State Index issued by Foreign Policy Magazine and Fund for Peace. Nearly all the worst cases are in Africa. Nothing surprising about that. But where do you place countries where there are regular shootings of civilians in schools, shopping malls or other public places? This is apparently not part of the criteria for classifying states as failed or healthy.

Even UN Reports do not inspire much confidence. There are many cases where developing countries are condemned to a low position because UN staff have been too lazy to look for up-to-date figures and instead, use statistics that are five years old or more.

Perhaps all these bodies need a Gosling who will not only make statistics enjoyable, but also reliable.

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