Three kinds of lies

Last week I attended the Premier’s State of the Province address at the annual gathering of the PEI Rotary Clubs.  As expected, his speech focused on economic issues and he provided handouts with charts showing a number of key indicators that support his narrative of unprecedented growth and prosperity.

Throughout the presentation I was reminded of the saying made famous by Mark Twain: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.  Of course, the problem with statistics is not their accuracy, but how easy it is to cherry-pick them to tell a particular story. For example the Premier’s handout provided a chart on Net Interprovincial Migration from 2013-2017 that showed migration going steadily from -941 to +444.  That tells a story that migration is consistently improving. At least until you add the numbers for 2017/18 which show it dropped back down to -446 in 2017-2018. But that information didn’t fit into the story the Premier wanted to tell, so it wasn’t included in his chart.

The Premier’s story (from the handouts linked above)


A look at the larger data set tells a different, more complex, story.

The Liberal government is incredibly adept at publicising random numbers to support a positive narrative, but for every positive statistic it is just as easy to find a statistic that refutes its position. For example, the handout states that we are climate leaders because PEI obtains 24% of its electricity requirements from wind power; yet a recent Stats Can report states that PEI households have the highest carbon emissions in Canada. According to the handout Total Labour Income Growth is up, but it fails to mention PEI still has the lowest average wages in the country and the largest percentage of workers earning $15.00 an hour or less.

Of course, statistics are not actually a type of lie: good statistics are essential for good policy decisions. Governments need to base their decisions on strong evidence, which comes from high quality data and in depth analysis.  But statistics can also be manipulated to tell a particular story. Politicians with an agenda, including Greens, can argue endlessly about the meaning of their own cherry-picked numbers. Yet, numbers in isolation only tell part of the story.  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) isn’t relevant unless you also consider how income from this economic activity is shared. Population growth is great until the vacancy rate hits 0.3% and people can no longer afford housing.

Imagine a woman sitting in her car in the Walmart parking lot.  Maybe she’s there because she just got a better job and wants to shop for things she couldn’t previously afford or maybe she has been evicted from her apartment and has to live in her car. The answer will not be found in charts or handouts, but from sitting down and letting her tell her own story. The stories behind statistics are complex, and the everyday reality of Islanders cannot be reduced to single data points on an optimistic handout.