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

Suscribe now

<b>Subscribe now!</b>

To receive your exclusive print editions delivered to you directly


Online edition
Previous editions

Don't miss

  • OECD Observer i-Sheet Series: OECD Observer i-Sheets are smart contents pages on major issues and events. Use them to find current or recent articles, video, books and working papers. To browse on paper and read on line, or simply download.
  • Queen Maxima of the Netherlands gives a speech next to Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto (not pictured) during the International Forum of Financial Inclusion at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico June 21, 2016.
  • How sustainable is the ocean as a source of economic development? The Ocean Economy in 2030 examines the risks and uncertainties surrounding the future development of ocean industries, the innovations required in science and technology to support their progress, their potential contribution to green growth and some of the implications for ocean management.
  • OECD Environment Director Simon Upton presented a talk at Imperial College London on 21 April 2016. With the world awash in surplus oil and prices languishing around US$40 per barrel, how can governments step up efforts to transform the world’s energy systems in line with the Paris Agreement?
  • Happy 10th birthday to Twitter. This 2008 OECD Observer interview with Henry Copeland said you’d do well.
  • The OECD Gender Initiative examines existing barriers to gender equality in education, employment, and entrepreneurship. The gender portal monitors the progress made by governments to promote gender equality in both OECD and non-OECD countries and provides good practices based on analytical tools and reliable data.
  • Once migrants reach Europe, countries face integration challenge: OECD's Thomas Liebig speaks to NPR's Audie Cornish.

  • Message from the International Space Station to COP21

  • COP21 Will Get Agreement With Teeth: OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría on Bloomberg

  • The carbon clock is ticking: OECD’s Gurría on CNBC

  • If we want to reach zero net emissions by the end of the century, we must align our policies for a low-carbon economy, put a price on carbon everywhere, spend less subsidising fossil fuels and invest more in clean energy. OECD at #COP21 – OECD statement for #COP21
  • They are green and local --It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa. blogs.worldbank.org
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it.
    Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.

  • Climate change: “We should not disagree when scientists tell us we have a window of opportunity–10-15 years–to turn this thing around” argues Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • In the long-run, the EU benefits from migration, says OECD Head of International Migration Division Jean-Christophe Dumont.
  • Is technological progress slowing down? Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on www.ft.com.
  • Catherine Mann, OECD Chief Economist, explains on Bloomberg why "too much bank lending can slow economic growth".
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at www.oecd.org/careers .

Most Popular Articles

Poll

What issue are you most concerned about in 2016?

Unemployment
Euro crisis
International conflict
Global warming
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 2016