Statistics - an international language


"Statistics is an international language, and I am delighted with the international statistical cooperation that is increasing in scope and significance", says Øystein Olsen, Director General of Statistics Norway, in connection with the celebration of World Statistics Day on 20 October 2010.


There is little doubt that the nation has faith in Statistics Norway acting as an independent institution that provides reliable figures. Compared with a number of other countries, we also wave our flag of independence extremely high. As an example, it was revealed in the wake of the financial crisis that the national accounting figures in Greece had been manipulated.

"Greece is no doubt an extreme case, but is nevertheless an example of how independence should never be taken for granted. The fact that the authorities have influenced the figures is naturally very unfortunate. The ramifications in Greece were far-reaching, but there are also other examples of degrees of influence by national statistical agencies", adds Olsen.

In Norway, the professional independence that we benefit from has evolved over time. This independence is strongly emphasised in the Statistics Act of 1989, which is still a modern law in an international context.

The media – factual and solution-oriented

The level of trust in Statistics Norway is not just high among the general population; the media conveying the statistics also treats our figures as factual information on the whole. This is not always the case in other countries.

"For instance, it is my impression that press releases on statistics in England are given the same critical treatment by the press as events relating to football or the royal family. I perceive our press to be much more oriented towards facts and solutions, and believe our media is not too concerned about trying to trip us up", states Olsen.

At the same time, there is little doubt that we have to work to retain the trust of the media, and we sometimes see the statistics being used in a way we don`t like. It is important to convey how the figures can be used and how they should not be used. One common problem when interpreting statistics relates to the difference between covariation and causal effect. For instance, we can demonstrate a correlation between health and education, but at the same time we must also make it clear that just because a person has higher education doesn`t mean they will have good health.

High expectations

The statistics must be developed on an ongoing basis in order to reflect what is happening in society. However, Olsen believes that expectations of what statistics can tell us can sometimes be too high.

"The need for statistics is constantly changing and growing. We have to define this need in collaboration with the authorities and other users. This can be a difficult balancing act, not least in relation to the needs of the authorities for statistics as a factual basis for political measures aimed at vulnerable groups. Statistics entail comparing figures and finding differences between groups, correlations and growth trends. However, in practice in society, there are often individuals that fall outside the statistics – rarely whole groups. This does not mean that statistics are not pertinent, but having said that, it can also be difficult to make decisions on the basis of the statistics", explains Olsen.

An international language

One key reason for celebrating World Statistics Day is the UN`s desire to recognise the global statistical system`s national and international activity.

"Statistics is an international language, and a pivotal part of producing statistics is facilitating comparisons, both within countries and internationally", says Olsen. The extent of the international cooperation is steadily growing, and its effect on us is also constantly increasing. In particular, the requirements of the EU through the EEA cooperation provide guidelines and opportunities. We also supply statistics to international organisations that can be accessed on their websites and databases. One beneficial feature in this regard is that statistics are steadily being made accessible free of charge, such as those published by Eurostat. The policy of free statistics is firmly established at Statistics Norway but it is also a growing trend on websites and in databases in the international arena", concludes Øystein Olsen.