Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (7): “Drowning” Data

Suppose we want to know how many forced disappearances there are in Chechnya. Assuming we have good data this isn’t hard to do. The number of disappearances that have been registered, by the government or some NGO, is x on a total Chechen population of y, giving z%. The Russian government may decide that the better measurement is for Russia as a whole. Given that there are almost no forced disappearances in other parts of Russia, the z% goes down dramatically, perhaps close to or even below the level other comparable countries.

Good points for Russia! But that doesn’t mean that the situation in Chechnya is OK. The data for Chechnya are simply “drowned” into those of Russia, giving the impression that “overall”, Russia isn’t doing all that bad. This, however, is misleading. The proper unit of measurement should be limited to the area where the problem occurs. The important thing here isn’t a comparison of Russia with other countries; it’s an evaluation of a local problem.

Something similar happens to the evaluation of the Indian economy:

Madhya Pradesh, for example, is comparable in population and incidence of poverty to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. But the misery of the DRC is much better known than the misery of Madhya Pradesh, because sub-national regions do not appear on “poorest country” lists. If Madhya Pradesh were to seek independence from India, its dire situation would become more visible immediately. …

But because it’s home to 1.1 billion people, India is more able than most to conceal the bad news behind the good, making its impressive growth rates the lead story rather than the fact that it is home to more of the world’s poor than any other country. …

A 10-year-old living in the slums of Calcutta, raising her 5-year-old brother on garbage and scraps, and dealing with tapeworms and the threat of cholera, suffers neither more nor less than a 10-year-old living in the same conditions in the slums of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi. But because the Indian girl lives in an “emerging economy,” slated to battle it out with China for the position of global economic superpower, and her counterpart in Lilongwe lives in a country with few resources and a bleak future, the Indian child’s predicament is perceived with relatively less urgency. (source)


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