True statistics

Readers' views No 245, November 2004
OECD Observer

I was a little bit surprised by your answers on the value of statistics in your last edition (“Counting on numbers”, OECD Observer No 244). You note that there is often a gap between official figures and reality as perceived by the public. This is particularly true when it comes to evaluating the inflation rate. People often find that the cost of living is rising faster than the official figures show.

Maybe it is true that the every day buyer, as well as consumer associations, may wrongly evaluate the inflation rate, by focusing on a limited category of products. Statistics institutions like the OECD certainly have the power to gather figures which are supposed to be closer to the reality. But the question you raise was, in my opinion, the right one: is it possible to use a price index which would take more into account the preoccupations of everyday citizens? I am not convinced you answered the question correctly though, as your expert simply asserted that individuals and consumer associations were less able to get a complete picture of inflation than statisticians. But the usefulness of statistics would be more widely acknowledged if statisticians were able to speak to broader audiences directly themselves and respond to the questions raised, rather than dismissing them.

The question at stake for statisticians is one of targeting their audience. Couldn’t statistical institutions take into account the discrepancy between the preoccupations of policymakers – who sometimes need a macroeconomic picture of reality – and the everyday worries of citizens? It is not fair to blame the media, for apart from some dramatic and misleading headlines, serious newspapers promote accurate data, and the OECD has benefited well from this publicity over the years. It is unlikely that millions of statistical gatherers are together conspiring to deliberately massage their data, but it is possible, indeed, important that their methods be open to public scrutiny, and possibly change. After all, it is our money.

—René Verdier, Paris, France

©OECD Observer No 245, November 2004

Economic data


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