Opinion by Tony Orman
Nineteenth century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said “There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.”
Studies are meant to foster informed decision-making, sound judgments and actions based on evidence, not hearsay – often termed anecdotal – or assumptions. Do they? Well it depends.
You see, statistics can be notorious for their ability and potential to be manipulated so as to be misleading and give a false perception. It depends on the way they are presented.
Misleading statistics can be the result of deliberate or accidental use of numerical data. The results then give a distorted or completely opposite conclusion to the receiver, in most cases the public.
Mona Lebied writing in “Data Analysis” Aug 8th 2018, said “Numbers don’t lie, they can in-fact be used to mislead with half-truths. This is known as the misuse of statistics. It is often assumed that the misuse of statistics is limited to those individuals or companies seeking to gain profit from distorting the truth, be it economics, education or mass media.”
But it’s not only profit-making agencies that manipulate statistics.
Fiddling with Data
A 2009 investigative survey by Dr. Daniele Fanelli from The University of Edinburgh found that just under 34 percent of scientists surveyed admitted to “tampering” with data “including modifying results to improve outcomes, subjective data interpretation, withholding analytical details and dropping observations because of gut feelings.”
Mona Lebied wrote “numbers don’t always have to be fabricated or misleading, it is clear that even societies most trusted numerical gatekeepers are not immune to the carelessness and bias that can arise with statistical interpretation processes.”
It’s important to understand misuse of statistics can be accidental or purposeful.
Polls of public opinion can be biased by the way in which questions are framed. These can be termed “loaded questions,” designed to encourage a response in a certain direction. It’s a good idea to view poll questions with a degree of analysis to see if you can discern any “loading.”
Statistics can be misleading
Of course politicians as one of the most untrustworthy of “professions”, are most likely to misuse data to suit their agendas. An example is the current covid 19 pandemic. Deaths are listed as due to covid19 – end of story.
But there appears no breakdown as to how many of those who died, already had severe health problems and were going to die then or at least soon. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be worried and acting in the face of a pandemic. I’m asking give us the true picture.
In this case I’d like to see a breakdown of Covid related deaths, with an explanation how many had underlying severe health issues.
Another example which in my opinion, has suspect data is that around global warming or climate change. There is one big flaw in the raging opposing extremes of today’s global warming debate.
In basic mathematics terms, the equation is represented by Natural Climate Change + or – Human Induced Climate Change = Actual Climate Change. Plus or minus.
Natural climate change has been going on for millions of years.
In Marlborough, several million years ago, when the climate had cooled, a glacier existed down to the confluence of the Branch, Goulter and the parent Wairau River. When it retreated the climate warmed. Today the glacier has gone. The cooling that preceded the glacier’s downstream advance and then the warming as it retreated, was just part of the normal dynamic cyclic nature of the earth’s climate.
Central Otago and in particular the St Bathans area is another case in point. Reading scientist George Gibbs’ comprehensive and fascinating book “Ghosts of Gondwana” (published 2016) there is the astonishing tale that about 15 to 20 million years ago, there was a large freshwater lake ecosystem which by evidence of fossils, had crocodiles, turtles, eucalyptus trees and other warm species.
“Their presence is indicative of a sub-tropical dry climate,” wrote George Gibbs.
The climate must have warmed to allow sub-tropical species to not only exist but thrive. Then it cooled to its present day climate of cool winters and hot summers – again proof of the dynamics of climate change.
In the frantic debate that currently ensues the factor of “natural climate change” is mostly missing.
Hypocrisy on the role of humans
Even scientists disagree on the human factor. For politicians it’s a populous bandwagon to hitch a ride on to popularity and power. Mixed up is hypocrisy.
New Zealand exports coal but conveniently for government, details are difficult to find. However googling I got a brief admission from a government site – “Most of New Zealand’s premium bituminous coal is exported.” That’s it. It’s almost a gloss-over.
Like “getting blood out of a stone” I then eventually found a newspaper article stating NZ’s “biggest markets for coal are Japan, India, China and Australia” where it’s often used in coal-fired power stations.
Then there is the issue of jet planes, which the significant emissions are exempt from calculations and obligations.
New Zealand is a long way from the world’s large continents and most major population centres. So people fly by jet planes.
A Victoria University 2019 Working Paper “Can We Keep Flying? Decarbonising New Zealand’s Domestic and International Aviation” by Wallace Rae and Paul Callister said “for New Zealanders a single economy class return trip to Europe elevates one person’s carbon footprint by an estimated 6 tonnes, 5 according to one carbon calculator, 8 tonnes 6 by another and over 11 tonnes 7 by a third.”
“Given our place in the world, it should be no surprise that domestic aviation emissions are swamped by emissions from international flights in and out of New Zealand.”
Denial of Reality
The authors said: “Rather than trying to comfort politicians in their utopias, scientists should instead help them to get out of the denial of reality.”
Much of the New Zealand political discussion has centred on measures the farming community should be taking to reduce methane emissions. There has been less discussion on the role of our transport fuels for a zero carbon 2050 vision. In particular, in New Zealand there is a dearth of published research on ways to decarbonise aviation. We urgently need discussion and debate on this topic.
More anomalies appear. In the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) it only accepts “a forest species capable of reaching five metres in height” – somewhat illogical and bizarre. That means vegetation under five metres in height is not considered in carbon sequestering calculations. Why?
Five metres is double the height of a normal housing ceiling. Bureaucrats setting such rules, should in their centrally heated cocoon, look at the ceiling and ponder at the absurdity.
A good number of native trees and shrubs are under five metres for example many of the coprosmas (58 species) , pittosporums (200 species), hebes, (80 species) and others and of course tall species such a rimu, beech, totara being slow growing, are less than 5 metres in height for a considerable number of years. Surely even pasture grasses have some carbon sequestering value?
Which raises the question why have a height limit on vegetation? It appears the dice is loaded against the rural community and in particular farmers.
The People Factor
There should be a clear distinction between the natural trend and the human induced trend in climate change.
Incidentally in the debate on global warming, I have seen no reference to part of the solution being managing human numbers, i.e. population planning. People drive cars which belch emissions and fly regularly on jet planes that fart “gases and particles – which contribute to climate change.” Humans demand resources, flush toilets, use chemicals and throw away garbage.
The more people, the greater demand for resources, more cars and planes, more sewers, more rubbish and more emissions.
There has always been climate change through ice ages and warm periods.
To reiterate what is the climate change induced by humans? Government departments can be very adept at manipulating data or research to suit their policies. In some cases the department’s bureaucrats via spin doctors, only tell half the story.
One area I’m familiar with is the Department of Conservation’s programme on aerial 1080 poison based on exterminating by 2050, within New Zealand, predators such as rats, stoats and possums.
The inclusion of possums as a “predator” is rather bizarre. The possum is a herbivore.
But DOC and extremist groups like Forest and Bird paint the possum as a “predator.” One Landcare Research scientist even did publicly.
The department aerially spreads 1080 poison over mostly public lands. It also supports and sanctions the use of aerial 1080 by OSPRI, funded partly by taxpayer, partly by farmer levies. OSPRI’s role is devoted to ridding the country’s cattle and deer herds of bovine tuberculosis (Tb).Sometimes manipulation of data is so simple as to not mention a statistic!
The conveniently forgotten statistic of OSPRI’s was revealed on Scoop News in September 2016, by a conservationist the late Bill Benfield. “New Zealand is Tb free by world yardsticks but even today OSPRI spins the line about the bovine Tb threat,” he said.
Bill Benfield explained the world standard for a country to declare “Tb free” is 0.2% for Tb infected herds and 0.1% for infected cattle.
“Recent information (2016) obtained by NZ First MP Richard Prosser in Parliament showed New Zealand rates of Tb infection in cattle were slight, i.e. 0.0019% average over the last nine years. It is so far below that required by world standards for a Tb free declaration – that New Zealand must be one of the world’s most Tb free countries”.
The Department of Conservation claims 1080 kills most rats. That is quite correct. In fact it knocks out about 80 percent of rats. Great news! But it’s only half the story and the department knows it too.
The truth is in a Landcare Research study in 2008 (Wendy Ruscoe, “Interaction of Mammalian Pest Populations Following Control”. While DOC’s 1080 drop has wiped out the greater majority of rats, there are the 10, 15 or 20 percent survivors. What DOC failed to explain was that rats are remarkably efficient breeders. The consequences are dire.
In 2011 Landcare Research scientist Wendy Ruscoe publicly said about her 2008 research “In our study it took one year for rat populations to come back to pre-poisoning levels. By the second year rat numbers were higher than before the operation.”
Rats are similarly efficient multipliers. They breed year-round capable of several litters a year and reach breeding age within just several weeks. About three weeks after getting pregnant, a female rat will give birth to a litter of 3 to 14 pups.
Rodent and Stoat Explosion
The research found that within three to four years, rat numbers will be three to four times pre-poisoning levels – an increase of 300 to 400 percent. Other studies have confirmed the remarkable bounce-back of rats following 1080 poison. The effect does not end there.
The principal prey for stoats is rats. With rat numbers high and a resultant increased availability of food, stoat numbers increase quickly. They similarly explode.
The problem for science is that it is subject to pressures, which can undermine its integrity and accuracy. DOC commissions agencies such as Landcare Research to carry out studies. This raises the question as to the integrity of the “paid “science.
In 2007 two retired US scientists Quinn and Pat Whiting-O’Keefe, originally from Stanford Research Institute and University of California, with a considerable knowledge in chemistry and an expertise in statistical inference in complex systems” appeared before a government review of 1080. They had spent eight months analysing pro-1080 studies.
The Truth on 1080?
In the “NZ Herald” the pair stated “There is now a familiar litany of scientifically insupportable claims about what great things aerial 1080, a universal poison, is doing for our forest ecosystems. The people of New Zealand have a right to know the truth about what the scientific evidence shows.”
The pair audited Department of Conservation scientific research and produced an 88-page monograph reviewing more than 100 scientific papers.
“The results are startling and belie most of the department’s claims. First, there is no credible scientific evidence showing that any species of native bird benefits from the dropping of tonnes of 1080 into our forest ecosystems, as claimed by the department – there is certainly no evidence of net ecosystem benefit.”
The problem is in the commercialisation of science where a scientist is commissioned by a client to examine a subject. Consider the dilemma for the scientist. If he or she wants continuing work from the client, then obviously the research’s conclusions should be compatible with the client’s policy.
Science and scientists have been placed in an invidious position. The late Bill Benfield in his 2015 book At War with Nature (Tross Publishing) spelt it out. “Bully boy tactics and other forms of coercion have been used in New Zealand to ensure that science supports the state’s policies.”
He agreed “it is still possible that robust science with professional integrity can happen” but “science subject to the power of political pressure and the cheque book is junk science.”
Just beware – as Benjamin Disraeli said “There are three types of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.”