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Fiddling with numbers

Nov 24,2018
Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

One statistical fact appears whenever a major airline accident occurs. Data is cited to claim flying is still the safest means of travel. Its danger is augmented only because a major accident causes mass casualties. This use of facts is half correct and half false. It is not wrong in the context of distance. A flight accident causes a fatality rate of 0.05 death per travel of 10 billion kilometers (6.2 billion miles), less than deaths caused by bus, train, ships or cars. But the results are different when measured in deaths per passenger onboard. Deaths per every one billion passengers for buses were 4.3 and 40 for cars, while the toll was 117 for airplanes, according to 2000 data from British publication Modern Railways.

Statistics can be deceiving. They can even fool experts. This is why the methodology and the margin of error must be described in modern statistics. It is dangerous to throw numbers around like the death rate from aviation accidents. Details can be left out or obscured to generate misleading headline or self-serving results. Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British writer, declared: “Round numbers are always false.”

The Moon Jae-in administration habitually plays with numbers. In January, President Moon Jae-in claimed 90 percent positive effects from his hike in the minimum wage. Last year, he irked Tokyo by saying the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima caused 1,368 deaths even as no immediate death has been reported. The president lately claimed the automobile and shipbuilding sector was rebounding.

There have been some improvements in the shipbuilding sector. But the industry has only begun to breathe on its own after being sustained on life support for years. Ship orders have improved from last year. But they are just 20 percent of the levels of the peak years for Korean shipyards. The pipeline could dry up if the global economy enters another downturn. The automobile front is in a more pitiful state. Hyundai Motor’s operating profit in the third quarter plunged 76 percent against a year ago. The supply chain is wrecked. In “How to Lie with Statistics” author Darrell Huff advises questioning numbers if they do not make sense. The president may have been thrilled to see positive numbers out of a slew of gloomy figures. But if he knew the reality, he could not have ordered his administration to “roll away while the tide is high.”

The president cannot be lacking ability or will to read behind the numbers. He graduated second in his class at the state judiciary training academy. He thumbs through all the reports on his desk, a habit he has kept up since his law practicing years. His secretaries must take pains to summarize the reports to make it easier for their boss. Some of them could have omitted negative numbers. Otherwise, how the president can be so misled cannot be explained. He needs to clean out more than one person in the presidential office in the new year.

Florence Nightingale was more than a trailblazing figure in nursing. She was a passionate statistician who was made the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. During the Crimean War, she discovered that more people died of poor sanitary conditions than from wounds. She was the first to introduce data visualization to prove the connection between sanitary practices and mortality rate to persuade British politicians to allocate funds. When the environment was cleaned up, the military hospital mortality rate came down to 2 percent from 4 percent. Greatness does not come from devotion and nobleness alone.

In hard times, managers are tempted to ignore negative figures or window dress them. The self-righteous lot who cannot easily admit they were wrong tend to be more self-deluded. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, for the second time this year, advised moderation in the pace of minimum wage hikes, warning that another big increase in the double-digits over two years can dampen “employment and growth.” The Blue House nevertheless remains firm. We may see more bizarre fiddling with numbers.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 23, Page 30