Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (Part 2)

I’m not a hundred percent sure who said it first – Mark Twain, Benjamin Disraeli or the first Duke of Wellington. Whoever it was, they drew our attention to the sad truth that “facts and figures” can be manipulated, distorted and misinterpreted to prove just about anything.

I want to share three items I came across recently, all circulated by people with Turkish names, but seeking to present Turkey in an unfavourable light. Two of them were posted on the business network LinkedIn, and the other, in our local English language news site, Hürriyet Daily News.

Turkey & ChinaThe first item is a graph purporting to compare the “productivity” of Turkey and China over a 25-year period. The two countries were, allegedly, neck-and-neck in 1990. By 2014, China’s “productivity” had grown exponentially to ten times that of Turkey, which had clearly languished in a state of economic inertia.

Well, several questions arose in my mind as I studied the graph. First, what was the source? No sign of that, and the gentleman who posted it online was unable to provide an answer. Second, given that China’s population is twenty times that of Turkey, is it fair to compare their economies in absolute terms, rather than, say per capita GNP? Moreover, is it likely that their “productivity” was equal in 1990? A more serious question, however, is, what, exactly, does the y axis of this graph measure? 500,000 what? 2,000,000 what? Dollars? Automobiles? Chinese noodles?

bi_graphics_middleeast-3The second item is a graphic listing the fifteen most powerful militaries in the Middle East. Leaving aside the debatable matter of whether Turkey is in the Middle East, at least we know the source of this graphic: globalfirepower.com via Business Insider. The figures are not up-to-date (2014) but leave that aside too. What interested me was that Turkey is said to be Number One on the list despite the following:

  • Saudi Arabia’s military budget is three times that of Turkey – though admittedly the Sauds don’t seem to have got much for their money.
  • Israel has 80-200 nuclear warheads (its neighbours have none) and (which the table doesn’t show) an “Iron Dome” (provided at stupendous expense by the United States government) so that no other country can actually attack them.
  • Iran and Egypt both have more active personnel than Turkey, and Egypt also has more aircraft.
  • Syria has more tanks and Iran has more submarines.

Of course, Turkey’s military capabilities should not be underestimated, as Britain, France and Greece learned to their cost after the First World War. However, the figures suggest they wouldn’t be wise to start throwing their weight around in the region, even if they did have the inclination.

Graph 1Finally, there was a graphic in our local daily showing the world’s “Top 15 Manufacturing Countries”. The writer’s main focus was on “Turkey’s relative performance [which] says a lot about Turkey’s transformation. Turkey entered [the list] in 1990, hung on until 2000, but dropped out afterwards. Today, we are muddling around between number 16 and 17.” (My highlights)

The first thing that struck me is, the global economy is a competitive market, and to be ranked in the top 20 out of 200 is not a bad achievement for a country that was an economic basket-case less than a century ago. Then, once again, the unit of measurement puzzles me. What exactly is “global nominal manufacturing gross value added”?

Moreover, let’s take a look at the other economic powerhouses. The United States has lost its Number One ranking, and anyway I’d be interested to know how much of their manufacturing actually takes place on home turf? Australia, the Netherlands and Argentina, in the Top 15 in 1980, had all “dropped out” by 2013. The United Kingdom, Spain and Canada had fallen from fourth, ninth and tenth, to eleventh, fourteenth and fifteenth respectively. On the other hand, South Korea, Russia and Indonesia, out of the running in 1980, had powered up to fifth, ninth and thirteenth places by 2013.

So what do we understand from this? One thing is certain, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Do these figures take any account of the proportion of a country’s population living in abject poverty, eg China and India? From a purely subjective point-of-view, the situation in Turkey doesn’t look too bad to me. Without getting into detailed comparisons, levels of air pollution are far below those of China. Destruction of the natural environment by rapacious business interests is nowhere near as bad as in Brazil or Indonesia.

In the final analysis, comparisons are odious (not sure who originated that one either) but one other thing is certain, we should treat statistical evidence with caution.


PS – For Part 1 click here

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2 thoughts on “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics (Part 2)

  1. No matter how you measure it, there’s no question that both China and Turkey (along with the so-called industrial world) are pursuing the insane course of depleting the planet’s scarce natural resources to the extent there will be nothing left for our children and grandchildren. This misguided emphasis on continually expanding economic competitiveness and growth needs to end now – while there’s still a chance of saving the planet from catastrophic climate change.

    • You’re absolutely right! But no one else is going to stop until the rich Western countries lead the way. As long as the American way of life is non-negotiable, the rest of the world will want to follow suit.

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