It is said that numbers don’t lie, but they certainly can equivocate.

We were reminded of that last week by two stories that appeared in the Compass, one about the George Town Landfill and one about unemployment figures.

We’ll start with the landfill.

According to the Economics and Statistics Office, Cayman Islands residents, businesses and tourists generated more than 100,000 tons of waste that ended up in the landfill in 2016 – a notable increase over the 73,000 tons from the previous year.

At first glance, the statistic is shocking – a 37 percent increase in trash one year? Sound the alarm! Gather the recycling bins! Rinse and reuse those paper towels!

But hold on … It turns out the story is more complex than the figures might suggest. According to Jim Schubert, senior project manager for the Integrated Solid Waste Management System, the massive numerical increase is due, at least in part, to more diligent record-keeping – rather than an actual increase in waste. In the past, there was no real incentive to keep accurate records of tonnage deposited at the dump, Mr. Schubert said, so it is difficult to know how much (if any) of the larger number reflects an actual increase in year-over-year landfill use.

Clear numbers aren’t synonymous with clear answers. To equate the two is a constant temptation that should be resisted.

When and how numbers are generated – and also, who generates the numbers and why – are critical to the proper interpretation of statistics and to clear-eyed decision-making based on, or perhaps despite, those figures.

In Cayman, unemployment statistics are a regular source of discussion and consternation. According to numbers released by the ESO last week, the country’s overall unemployment rate is holding steady at 4.1 percent – a healthy figure that is well below the theoretical “full employment” rate of 5 percent.

Of course, the story the statistics tell isn’t so simple. There are layers.

Slicing into the data set, you see that unemployment among Caymanian workers is 6.2 percent, two percentage points higher than the overall rate. (This is logical. By definition it is difficult for a non-Caymanian “work permit holder” to remain in Cayman while being unemployed.)

Taking another slice, you find that only two-thirds of unemployed people said they could not find a job. Others were unable to work, or were not actively seeking employment. Additionally, nearly all unemployed Caymanians (93 percent of them) had worked within the past year – they just were not employed at the time the survey was taken.

The above information does not necessarily apply to all Cayman residents, but is based on a relatively small sample of people who responded to the statistics office’s survey (5.4 percent of all households). Data collection took place in March and April, more than six months ago.

Amid those nuances and caveats, the most significant “fine print” in this survey (as in all surveys) is the “margin of error.” Strictly speaking, the report does not show a current unemployment rate of 4.1 percent, but that the authors can state with 95 percent confidence that Cayman’s total unemployment rate this past spring was somewhere between 2.9 percent and 5.3 percent (with Caymanian unemployment between 4.0 percent and 8.5 percent).

What bearing does that have on policy decisions meant to address the present employment situation, much less in the future? Certainly, a lack of precision and timeliness limits the value of statistics.

Our commentary should not be interpreted as criticism of these reports, the ESO or statistics in general. Rather, we are highlighting two recent examples of numbers being “squishier” than they may first appear.

It may be tempting to “cherry pick” figures that reinforce previously held beliefs, promote pet projects, or fortify political allegiances, but when numbers are used to tell a story, they should tell the whole story.

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