EDITORIAL : Lies, damned lies and statistics

Fri, May 21, 2010 - Page 8

Yesterday marked President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) second year in office and the midway point of his four-year term.

In the build-up to the anniversary, the media has been awash with surveys and polls rating almost everything, from Taiwan’s current economic situation and support for a planned economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) with China, to Ma’s popularity and even his chances of re-election against prospective opposition presidential candidates in 2012.

Of course, the government immediately jumped on the positive, with particular attention being given to the International Institute for Management Development’s (IMD) latest world competitiveness report, which saw Taiwan jump from 23rd to eighth position, indicating increased competitiveness and government efficiency. Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) was quick to take the plaudits.

Yet US-Taiwan Business Council Chairman Paul Wolfowitz also mentioned in a speech this week that Taiwan was ranked 46th in the World Bank’s annual Doing Business report, far behind the other three Asian “tiger” economies, with Singapore and Hong Kong in the top three.

Needless to say, the government was not so keen to highlight the results of this particular poll, and while the two reports focused on different aspects of Taiwan’s business environment, they did show the wealth of statistics that are available to people wanting to state a particular case.

This phenomenon has also been prevalent with regard to statistics and polling related to the ECFA, with reports about the economic benefits differing widely in their findings.

Government-affiliated think tanks have produced largely rosy post-ECFA predictions of GDP growth and job opportunities, while their adversaries have painted gloomy scenarios of shattered industries and job losses totaling hundreds of thousands.

Opinion polls have also mimicked this pattern, with government and pro-unification media surveys showing growing support for the pact, while the pro-independence polls have shown that opposition to signing an ECFA is strong.

With all this opposing information, it is no wonder that the public remains confused.

The result of such polling is also the reason why a growing number of people in Taiwan no longer have faith in such results.

It is a fact that statistics and polls can be manipulated to support even the most unpopular arguments, hence the adage “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

The premier probably had this in mind when he said he wanted to achieve a 60 percent public approval rating before the ECFA is signed. Even with time running out as the government’s self-imposed June deadline approaches and public opinion on the subject remains divided, Wu knows full well that there is a pollster out there somewhere that can produce the desired result.

However, while the government may be able to fudge the numbers to give it a mandate to sign an ECFA, one thing the polls have been consistent on is the continued low approval rating of Ma and his administration.

Should it continue to rule in the arrogant, arbitrary manner it has employed in its first two years, then this government will be voted out in 2012, something no amount of positive statistics will be able to prevent.