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Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics


11 July 2002

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“Watching the Greens’ beat up on the ‘was it or was it not genetically engineered?’ corn has focused attention on the tactics of the entire global Green movement,” said John Walley, Chief Executive of the Canterbury Manufacturers’ Association. “They ask seductively simple questions, for example: Is it safe? Can you give a absolute guarantee? And when the answer is more complex than a simple sound bite or not one the interviewer wants, the question is repeated again and again using different words or innuendo.” The resulting fear and confusion leads to stagnation – the real goal of the Greens - we all end up like possums in the headlights, frozen and unable to do anything.

The use of Quality Assurance principles has given us a developing environment with increasing levels of safety. 50 years ago products were tested along the lines of ‘check everything, necessarily without destruction, giving an illusion of safety:’ now we ‘take samples, test them as necessary and make inference statements about the whole batch,’ providing a statistical statement of risk. This is critical; the only way to know when something will break is to break it and at that point it becomes useless for its intended purpose. We can say that based on testing others like it are unlikely to break under certain circumstances; statistics allow the uncertainty to be quantified, but it can never be zero.

Think of the NASA projects when men went to the moon and back, safely. When the engineers told the astronauts there was a 0.05% chance of not getting back did not mean much when told that it was about the same as driving between Los Angeles and New York several thousand times without having a fatal road traffic accident – the rest is history. Risk is relative not absolute, the Greens know this but choose, constantly, to create fear because fear leads to what they really want - stagnation.

“Ministers Hobbs and Hodgson and Prime Minister Clark have my sympathy on this one,” said Mr Walley. “Sometimes simple questions have very complex answers that are not suited to sound bites.” In this modern world of Quality Assurance the Greens need to remember that Disraeli’s sound bite about lies, damned lies and statistics has no place.


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