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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

By Jon Tomczyk

“There are three kinds of lies:
Lies, Damned lies, and Statistics!”

This well-known saying is part of a phrase attributed to Benjamin Disraeli and popularized in the U.S. by Mark Twain. The semi-ironic statement refers to the persuasive power of numbers, and succinctly describes how even accurate statistics can be used to bolster inaccurate arguments

Countless books have been written on this topic, notably the classic “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff in 1954.

More recently in 2001, sociologist Joel Best from the University of Delaware, wise to the ways of activists, politicians and the media, wrote the authoritative “Damned Lies and Statistics: Untangling Numbers from the Media, Politicians, and Activists”.

Sure enough, as Best portends it, a recent article published in Mongabay in October 2007, written by Rhett A. Butler, in attempting to point out that palm oil’s role in reducing rural poverty “may have been overstated”, especially in Sabah,[i.] is consistent with Best’s discomfiture and distrust of the statistical assertions of activists such as Mongabay!

Butler, quoting researcher Marc D. Bowden argued that “despite substantially lower coverage of oil palm plantations, Sarawak saw a greater reduction in poverty rates over the past three decades than neighboring Sabah. In Sarawak, oil palm plantation cover expanded from 0.12 percent of the land area in 1976 to 4.08 percent in 2004, the proportion of the population living below the poverty line fell 85 percent from 51.7 percent to 7.5 percent in the same period.”

Pointing derisively to Sabah, where oil palm plantation cover grew from 0.95 percent in 1976 to 15.81 percent in 2004, poverty rates dropped 55 percent from 51.2 percent to 23 percent,” Butler contends that this is conclusive proof that palm oil does not reduce rural poverty!

Again citing Bowden, Butler triumphantly asserts that “if it were true (that palm oil reduces rural poverty), one would expect a far greater reduced rate of poverty in Sabah than has occurred in Sarawak," writes Bowden. Whilst conceding that “it would be unwise to assume that the palm oil industry has had no positive impact on reducing poverty in Sabah”, Butler echoes Bowden in contending that “it is clear that any causal relationship is not as strong as is broadly assumed."

At the risk of sounding facetious, it is difficult to understand how Bowden could have the devious mental dexterity to jump through this series of analytical hoops to reach such a spurious conclusion! Bowden conveniently neglects to examine the glaring reasons for Sabah and Sarawak’s divergent results in eradicating rural poverty! It is well known that Sabah suffers from an inordinately high rate of illegal immigration from the neighboring islands of Philippines and Indonesia. It is widely acknowledged that Sabah has one of the highest population growth rate and, indeed, the highest illegal immigration rate in the country. The official population estimate for the year 2006 is put at 2,997,000. Today, non-Malaysian citizens make up one-quarter of the total population, exceeding even the long standing majority indigenous population of Kadazan-dusun (17.8%).

Just this morning, the Prime Minister of Malaysia in a meeting with the Chief Minister of Sabah, in addressing the longstanding issue of illegal immigration in Sabah said: “I will direct the Home Minister, Datuk Seri Syed Jaafar Albar to put Sabah on top priority and to take action to resolve the problem.” The Prime Minister said that solutions would include the setting up of temporary detention centers for illegal immigrants.” [iii.]

Even the redoubtable researcher, Bowden acknowledges that rural populations in Sabah have failed to benefit from oil palm expansion partly because plantation owners primarily employ workers from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Bowden went on to recommend several steps for future development, including “improving oil yields per hectare from the present estate; clamping down on illegal immigration; providing universal primary and secondary education; reducing illiteracy rates among children and adults; encouraging greater government transparency by dealing severely with corruption involving government officials and employees; and improving rural infrastructure, including roads, water, sanitation, and electricity,” ironically all steps already actively and vigorously pursued by the Government in Sabah.

In the view of the Palm Oil Truth Foundation, the aetiology or underlying causes of poverty is multifaceted, involving many inter-related factors, which may vary both in time and place. It is well known too that a significant source of Sarawak’s GDP can be attributed to timber logging activities which have benefited the State economically which, in turn, has contributed significantly to the eradication of rural poverty due to the spillover effect of wealth creation.

However, as far as Sabah and Sarawak is concerned, there is general agreement on the general factors or variables that are associated with poverty. These include the lack of access to productive assets, lack of employment opportunities, lack of education and marketable skills, poor resource endowment, unfavorable land to population ratio, traditions not conducive to developments, and demographic factors. While these factors are by no means exhaustive, it is clear that the variables involved are both complex in nature and are inter-related.

To say then that one State’s rural poverty eradication program is more effective than the other is an affront to the State that is struggling with external factors, such as illegal immigration. To ignore that and to conveniently conclude that palm oil does not, consequently lead to rural poverty eradication is to use statistics in such a deceitful way that it would certainly rank Butler’s article in in the annals of literary infamy!


ii. Kamal Sadiq (2005) When States Prefer Non-Citizens Over Citizens: Conflict Over Illegal Immigration into Malaysia, International Studies Quarterly 49 (1) , 101–122 doi:10.1111/j.0020-8833.2005.00336.x
iii. The Star publication of 8th April , 2008 N6


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