OPINION – Numbers, numbers

Statistics are a feature of modern times. In many branches of human endeavour, we came to believe that what we don’t measure, we cannot control. Numbers became part and parcel of the public discourse in all sorts of social and economic matters. 

In the conduct of state affairs, in almost all corners of institutional and political life, numbers pop up at every opportunity. They provide statements aura of certainty and indisputable truth that public opinion often grants to science and mathematics.

Admittedly, often it is just a matter of simple arithmetic, and public opinion frequently suffers from the same ills that mar its close cousin, common sense – not always that common, and not always very sensible. But let’s move on.

Indeed, it has become a cliché to invoke the quote attributed to Mark Twain, that “there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (As an aside, the quote is not Twain’s – misinformation and fake news have a longer pedigree that many seem to recognize.

But, again, let’s move on.) More sharply, another cliché comes to mind (sorry for their proliferation): “duly tortured, figures always tell us what we want.”   

The usage of statistics can then be both illuminating and highly misleading. That may be so even when the figures themselves are incontrovertible. For illustration, let me use two (contrasting) quotes from a single paragraph in a recent press release on Macau visitors. 

“(…) visitor arrivals totaled 789,407 in July 2021, (…) a boost of 966.7% year-on-year. Numbers of overnight visitors (412,735) and same-day visitors (376,672) bounced back by 1,634.5% and 650.2% year-on-year respectively.

Impressive as they may seem, these percentage figures are hardly enlightening. They tell us very little of use about the general status of the tourism business. We are comparing the current (admittedly challenging) situation with the worst period in decades. Such percentages, splendid as they may look, are for all purposes meaningless.

“The average length of stay of same-day visitors (…) remained unchanged year-on-year and that of overnight visitors (…) shortened by 1.3 days, yet the average duration for visitors increased (…) to 1.8 days on account of a growth (…) in the proportion of overnight visitors.”

This statement tells us the observed improvement in the indicator is essentially a statistical artefact and why. It clarifies, adds to our understanding. 

We will rarely find two more distinct analytical mindsets in a single paragraph.