Suspect Stats

Statistics are great. They can be used to confirm hypotheses, explain phenomena, underline issues and much more. They are also not the infallible construct they are sometimes portrayed to be. Statistics are often heralded as a neutral device, a bundle of facts which cannot be easily countered however, this is not always the case. Statistics can also be political, they should be interrogated in much the same way as other arguments before accepting their suppositions.

The case study I will be using in this article relates to reporting on development. The topic of global poverty and inequality is a discourse heavily steeped in disagreement and controversy, with competing perspectives on the targets and policy to reach said targets inspiring heated debate. According to Oxfam, the 26 richest people in the world have a combined wealth equal to the bottom 50% of the world's population. A 12% increase in the wealth of the world's billionaires has occurred parallel to an 11% decrease in the wealth of the poorest half of the world's population. Strangely, the World Bank uses statistics to illustrate a different picture of the world, claiming that in 37/41 developing countries and emerging economies, the Gini coefficient ( a commonly used economic tool to measure inequality) has demonstrated that inequality has either remained stable or decreased between 2007 and 2015.
But which of these is true? Well, technically both are!
Methodological differences
Key to the use of statistics is how such conclusions were reached through statistical investigation. Oxfam tends to use data with an emphasis on wealth whilst the World Bank uses income. In terms of poverty calculation, Oxfam considers relative poverty, with the World Bank opting for absolute poverty.
Data selection
The data used by respective organisations also has a large role to play within the derivation of the final statistics. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, the claims made by the World Bank originate from highly selective data use. A limited number of countries being used bolsters hypotheses whilst the selection of data from 2007-2015 makes use of the impact from the financial crisis which saw even the wealthy lose out. Moreover, attempting to rebut fears surrounding the wealth of the top 10%, the World Bank chose a case study of Russia between 2008-2015 where the share of wealth for the top 10% decreased by 4%, failing to include the subsequent upturn beginning in 2016.

Renowned economist Paul Romer, chief economist at the World Bank recently resigned after criticising the lack of integrity used within World Bank reports as motivated by ideological drivers. This further drives home the point that statistics hold purpose and we must be aware of who they are being used for and the political element entangled within methodology and selection.

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