[FOUNTAIN]The secrets of statistics

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[FOUNTAIN]The secrets of statistics

The focus of U.S. intelligence authorities during the Cold War era was, unmistakably, to monitor the Soviet Union's development of military weapons. In busy streets as well as in dungeons around the world, secret agents traded confidential information about the Soviet Union's military bases or arsenals. But far afield from that cloak-and-dagger suspense, statistics experts, sitting in quiet offices in Washington, D.C., plowed through Soviet military intelligence data. The experts scrupulously analyzed official and unofficial material released by major government agencies of the Soviet Union and published by various institutes.

For example, the experts estimated the production of copper and steel or they traced where basic materials used to make special alloys were mined and processed. All of this told them what kinds of weapons could be made.

Thus, the statistics experts from those days predicted yields of crops based on precipitation. They then extrapolated the size of troops dispatched to the borders, as well as the size of extra forces, by subtracting private demands for staples from a crop yield.

Among those who fled Nazi Germany to the United Kingdom were statistics experts who combed intelligence by analyzing German newspapers that were published under strict censorship. They even succeeded in predicting precisely where German troops would move, as accurately as information that was obtained on-site by spies who had infiltrated Germany. Names of people appearing in marriage announcements or in newspaper obituaries, the time and place where various events were held, the number of people mobilized and changes in weather served as useful intelligence material.

Statistics have a powerful appeal in the world where empirical evidence is considered the most reliable information. Even politicians, who seem less than keen about numbers, try to persuade the general public to accept statistics. But the most worrisome practice is for the government to deny the public access to certain statistics. The Korea Development Institute recently held a conference on income distribution, in which academic researchers denounced the government and state-run institutes for refusing to share some statistics. The National Statistical Office was also criticized. Researchers responsible for making predictions argue that they cannot obtain tax records for the public, even when detailed private information is removed, which makes it hard to forecast income and investment tendencies. Where will these secrets about statistics end?

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Choi Chul-joo

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