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Statistics: a lot of science and a dash of art

Twitterissä: @JuhaJemartik

In statistics, information is made available to people in as accessible and easily understandable format as possible. The quality of statistical information should be high, and it should reflect the objective truth. In Finland, these are ensured by means of standard classifications and quality reports.

Statistics are based on source material, data. In Finland, more than 90 per cent of statistical data comes from administrative registers, such as the State Treasury or the Tax Administration. The remaining data are obtained through sample surveys conducted for enterprises and individuals.


Figure 1. Statistics are based on source material: Data
Figure 1. Statistics are based on source material: Data


The source material also sets restrictions on statistics, and these should not be ignored. The material does not always offer sufficient coverage of a phenomenon, or it may include errors or misreported information. Any missing information is supplemented by combining statistics and by modelling and editing. Corrections may be needed based on other data or expert assessment.

The theory of economics, lying behind national accounts, could be compared to the modelling of physical phenomena. I would use thermodynamics as an example, in which matter changes its state as a result of changes in temperature, or energy.

Matter can be solid, so that it is easily identifiable and it is easy to present in statistics. In economics, examples include land areas, individuals and goods. In the liquid state, matter is more in motion, similarly to labour force, capital, services, imports and exports. The gaseous state is comparable to intangible assets and agreements on ownership. Moreover, funding is like energy that may disappear, even into space.

Instead, wellbeing, the environment and happiness are well outside the frame of reference of national accounts, as is quantum physics in relation to thermodynamics.

How do statistics reflect the objective truth? Can everything be scientifically evaluated, reproduced and tested, or is it more like art or even magic?

In art, things that might otherwise be difficult to handle are brought together. Art appeals to emotions and aims to have an impact. Emphases, empty spaces and the things that are left untold are all meaningful. Art often reflects its maker, and it is often difficult to identify the reasons behind it.

I have found many features of neoclassicism in economic statistics, also with a touch of functionalism, minimalism, realism, romantic nationalism, social realism, impressionism and expressionism.

If source data are not complete and modelling is inaccurate, statistics may even resemble surrealism. Presenting wandering and broken time series is like dadaist poetry. In this case, it is necessary to return to the scientific foundation of statistics and change the calculation method and its rules.

As not everything can be calculated using statistical methods, statistics still include many characteristics of art. This is what makes living and statistics so fascinating.

The author works at Statistics Finland as an expert in the balance of payments and national accounts.

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