Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time for Truth in Statistics?

Ma Jiantang, the head of China's National Bureau of Statistics, paid a visit to the rural survey statisticians in Gansu Province this month where he urged them to preserve truthfulness and correctness in statistics. These are the "sacred duties" of survey teams at each level.

Ma Jiantang gets the "actuality" for Gansu's rural survey team and gives them some pointers on raising labor productivity. It only took 14 people to look at this patch of dirt.

As most people know, the quality of China's statistics are highly questionable. The statistical system was set up under central planning and still bears the legacy of that era, when statistics were reported up from one level to the next. The national bureau has little control over local statisticians who often inflate numbers to make their province look good. Statistics were a means of validating the success of the leaders' policies, not a way to find out what's actually going on out there. Statistics wasn't even a recognized discipline in universities until the 1990s.

We can perhaps detect some of the problems by parsing Mr. Ma's instructions to the statisticians. Below are some of Ma's exhortations followed by a possible interpretation in parentheses.

Ma urged them to have a sense of being a "national team." [The national statistics bureau and the local survey teams are actually supposed to be working together. Tell us true figures, not exaggerated numbers that make your province look good.]

Ma urged them to have a sense of "actuality." [Don't fake the numbers to make your leaders look good, to meet targets, qualify for subsidies or to hide problems.]

"Raising the truthfulness and reliability of grain production data...is the sacred duty of each level of statistical organization." [Would you please tell us how much grain is really being produced? Who really believes that grain production went up 7 years in a row when huge swathes of land are being turned into malls and industrial parks and only old people and children are left in the villages to do farm work?]

"...statistics organizations must go into the countryside, into the fields, to the households, understand agricultural input situation, crop planting structure and production situation..." [Don't sit in your office and fill out the survey questionnaires with fake numbers; go out there and actually count things!]

Ma told them to strictly perform independent investigation and independent reporting. [Don't let local government or company leaders tell you who should be in your sample, or tell you what the results should be, and don't let them massage the numbers.]

This article is one of several about Ma Jiantang's visits to local areas to exhort statisticians to improve data. According to the article, "...implementation of statistical modernization is a central objective of statistical development reforms during the twelfth five-year plan period." Perhaps we can look forward to accurate statistics from China.

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