Wed | Jul 18, 2018

Tony Deyal | The winter of our discontent

Published:Saturday | December 3, 2016 | 12:00 AM

Did you hear the joke about the statistician? Probably. But only because being a statistician means never having to say you're certain. There was a statistician who tried to cross a river with an average depth of one metre. He drowned.

The one in this story is not much better. One day, there was a fire in a wastebasket in the office of the Dean of Sciences at an American university. In rushed a physicist, a chemist, and a statistician. The physicist immediately started to work on how much energy would have to be removed from the fire to stop the combustion. The chemist started to investigate which reagent should be added to the fire to prevent oxidation.

While they were doing this, the statistician started setting fires to all the other wastebaskets in the office. "What are you doing?" the others demanded. The statistician replied, "Well, to solve the problem, you obviously need a larger sample size."

I should have been a statistician, because since I was small, I was deeply into sampling - (with all due respect to the prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago) my mother's freshly made roti, whatever brand of 'sweet drink' was around, and once even a bottle of wine with staggering consequences.

I am also, like most West Indians, as good at assumptions as the statistician in this story. A physicist, a circus strongman, and a statistician were marooned on a desert island. A box of canned food washed ashore and the question was how to open the cans.

The physicist suggested dropping them from the trees on to the rocks below so they would break open. The strongman said that was too messy, and that he would rip the cans open with his bare hands. The statistician vetoed that idea, saying it was guaranteed to make even more of a mess. Instead, he proposed what he said was the most effective solution, one that was clean and without fuss. "First," he said, "let us assume we have a can opener."

If you are one of those people who think that statisticians are all dreamers or impractical people lost in their own speculative universe, think again. On Monday, November 28, 2016, Trinidad held its local government elections. Only 34.5 per cent of an electorate of around 1.1 million people voted. That is about one in every three eligible voters. In other words, two out of three people who could have voted did not vote.

This compared with 66.8 per cent who voted in the 2015 general elections (just about twice the number of those voting on Monday) and about nine per cent, or almost 100,000 people fewer than the number who voted in the previous local government elections in 2013.

Even a statistician with his head in the clouds would have his feet sufficiently on the ground, even if on tiptoe, to find this phenomenon extremely interesting and worthy of further investigation and research.

According to Trinidad's Guardian newspaper, the governing party, the People's National Movement, blamed the media. Its chairman, Franklin Khan, is quoted as saying that the media's coverage of the "roti" statement made by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley in the recent local government elections campaign was "a disservice to the election campaign". He insisted that the low point of the campaign was "when the media put a spin on our reform agenda and made it into a roti war".

While acknowledging that his party did not "excite" enough the electors who chose not to vote and that there "probably" was some work to do, Khan stuck to his roti explanation. He did not endorse the view that the people who did not vote in the election were sending a message to both parties, the PNM and the United National Congress, that they were tired of the brand of politics being offered.


Message to the Gov't


Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar interpreted the low poll as a message, not to her and her party, but to the Government. She boasted, "I had asked the people to send a message to the Rowley government that there was too much pain and suffering, and it is time for a change." Ignoring that her party was supported by slightly less than one-tenth of the total electorate, she told her supporters, "I pledge to continue to hold the Rowley government to account, and as we celebrate, remember this is a sign of a victory to come."

The government was even more ecstatic and called it a "handsome" victory. "Is licks in the east, licks in the west, licks in the south, and they just barely get away in the centre," Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley crowed to a cheering crowd at the Balisier House on Monday night. Commenting on the extremely low turnout, the prime minister explained that it was not "surprising", as the local government polls do not attract a large voter turnout.

The harsh truth is that regardless of the spin now, both parties worked really hard to get support. The prime minister said that his party did as much as it could do in motivating people to come out to vote. In fact, he pleaded on the hustings, "To stay home is as good as voting for dem (UNC)." The opposition leader rallied her supporters to go out and vote: "If you don't send them a message on November 28, they'll continue to bleed T&T and make people suffer!"

This is why the final irony is the talk by both parties and boasts about who won the 'popular' vote.

- Tony Deyal was last seen arguing with a female statistician who told him that he was less than average. "You are just being mean," he complained bitterly.