Statistics, knowledge and progress

Secretary-General of the OECD

“Nothing exists until it is measured”. This keen observation by the Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, Niels Bohr, has become something of a leitmotiv in the statistics world, but it bears some scrutiny.

After all, we are producing more statistical information than ever before. Indeed, many of us feel overwhelmed by it. In 2004, the US government alone spent nearly $5 billion for financing statistical programmes. All very well, but do we know what information we should pay attention to, and what to do with these measurements once we have them? When all is said and done, is the volume of information with which we are all inundated improving decision-making, governance, business strategies, or standards of living? Are we better prepared to confront the challenges of the 21st century?

Not necessarily. Statistics are information, but as Albert Einstein put it, “information is not knowledge”. Yet, it is knowledge that leads to good decision-making and spurs progress. Statistics are raw material for the creation of knowledge, just as steel is raw material for manufacturing automobiles. Obviously, the quality of statistics is critical for public policy. Flawed information undermines knowledge, and can lead to poor policy decisions, and undermine progress.

Alas, to quote from Joel Best’s book, Damned Lies and Statistics: “many – probably the great majority – of bad statistics are the result of confusion, incompetence, innumeracy, or selective self-righteous efforts to produce numbers that reaffirm principles and interests”. Bad and misleading statistics do exist, and they are used in the public domain to sell newspapers and fight elections. “Deliberate deceptions”, Best called them. Little wonder our trained statisticians cover their data in footnotes and caveats in a bid to prevent their misinterpretation! But footnotes are not enough. Education is also vital; people have to be trained to evaluate carefully the numbers they are given, to think critically and to detect “spin”, particularly in today’s number wars.

Climate change is a good example. Global warming is occurring, but poor data, or misuse of good data, can lead to unhelpful overreaction on the one hand, inaction on the other. Economic growth is another case in point. What does gross domestic product really tell us about economic and social progress? Not much. As the late Robert Kennedy remarked, such an indicator “does not capture the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play – it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Today, citizens expect a more comprehensive measurement and understanding of progress, based on quality as well as quantity. We need to refine our indicators and extend the concept of growth to oversee society’s progress as a whole. How?

To my mind, good policy relies on a triangular paradigm anchored at one side by economic growth and on the other by social stability or social cohesion, with good governance ensuring the transfer of the benefits of growth to society as a whole, with this paradigm resting on natural capital (the environment). To sustain progress, governments must design and adapt their policies on all three fronts.

How do we know we are on the right track? Should we introduce globally accepted standards – or key indicators – for measuring progress? This is where the OECD comes in. We are known for our robust data, but the OECD is far more: it is a “knowledge-based” organisation committed to building expertise, intelligence and advice for guiding policy action and progress. It is the hub of a global knowledge network of experts, government and civil society.

The OECD is widely recognised as one of the most influential international bodies in arming policymakers and the public with the information and guidance needed to face current and future challenges. Underlying our way of working, our strong analytical skills, our networks for policy dialogue and our development of international benchmarks, are reliable statistics. The OECD, with other international organisations, can help, through advice, benchmarking and setting feasible targets, as we have done with the Millennium Development Goals, and promoting “evidence based decision-making”, as we did at the World Forum on Key Indicators, held in Palermo, Italy, in November 2004.

Governments too can take action. In the Measuring Australia’s Progress (MAP) initiative, for example, progress is “not only improvement in the material standards of living, or other changes in the economic aspects of life, but also changes in social and environmental areas.”

Such initiatives rely not on data alone, but on building knowledge. They hold great promise. As Benjamin Franklin said, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest”. The OECD is committed to supporting such an investment and sharing with the rest of the world its unique statistical and analytical treasury.

©OECD Observer, No 246-247, December 2004 - January 2005




Economic data

E-Newsletter

Stay up-to-date with the latest news from the OECD by signing up for our e-newsletter :

Twitter feed

Editor's choice

  • Events at the OECD: Click on the image to get the full calendar.
  • [VIDEO] Although many countries have made great progress in narrowing gender gaps in education, new challenges are looming.
  • 5 things you might not know about the state of Amazonas. The World Bank identifies the main colossal challenges Brazil's biggest state is facing.
  • Gender mainstreaming: French young lady working in an engine assembly plant. Women and men on the same boat when it comes to job insecurity. © Raphaël Helle / Signatures / La France VUE D'ICI
  • The Asian Development Bank together with the International Labour Organization challenge the concept of women's work in Asia and the Pacific.
  • Gender wage gap
  • Visit the OECD Gender Data Portal. Selected indicators shedding light on gender inequalities in education, employment and entrepreneurship.
  • Composite leading indicators
  • 2015, a year full of dangers? Laurent Bossard, director of the Sahel and West Africa Club, acknowledges that the situation in the region is complex and unstable but refuses to give in to fatalism.
  • The 5th Anti-corruption conference for G20 governments and business in Istanbul on 6 March will address how all businesses can play their part in contributing to growth and investment, and can operate with clean hands in a safe environment.
  • Success story. Discover the story of this young Ethiopian woman who launched a successful business in the footwear industry and became a UN Goodwill Ambassador for Entrepreneurship.
  • Transports in Asia. The Asian Development Bank advocates sustainable transport in a continent where vehicle ownership is perceived as a sign of social success.
  • Vote for your favourite photograph! This World Bank #EachDayISee photo contest aims to display visual stories from all over the world through which people express what they would like to see changed and improved.
  • Why is investment so low in the euro area? This short IMF blog post gives you an insight into the causes of the euro-zone's drastic decline in investment.
  • Have your say! The UN wants to know what matters most to you: pick six global issues in the list and send it to the United Nations.
  • Tim Harcourt Video
  • G20 and Australia: Bestselling economist Tim Harcourt speaks to the BBC about how Australia has gone from "Down Under to Down Wonder".
  • Clear air and healthy lungs: how to better tackle air pollution. From New Delhi to Accra, millions of people breathe polluted air. A new report examines the World Bank’s experience working to improve air quality.
  • The boring secret of great cities. Plenty of things make a city great but what really makes a difference originates in the structure of municipal government according to the OECD's report "The Metropolitan Century".
  • Guinea gets $37.7 million in extra IMF financing to help combat Ebola
  • World Water Day: 22 March 2015 For World Water Day, UN-Water identifies upcoming challenges and sets the theme for the years to come. In 2015, the theme for World Water Day is Water and Sustainable Development.

Most Popular Articles

Subscribe Now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Poll

What issue are you most concerned about in 2015?

Euro crisis
Unemployment
Global warming
International conflict
Other

OECD Insights Blog

NOTE: All signed articles in the OECD Observer express the opinions of the authors
and do not necessarily represent the official views of OECD member countries.

All rights reserved. OECD 2015