The uses and limitations of statistics

The uses and limitations of statistics

In his article In Defence of the Alliance, Ben Courtice says we need “more quantitative and systematic analysis of the limits of current activities, especially those that might be routine or taken for granted, with an open presentation of alternative options. Engage a statistician if necessary!”

Statistics can be useful — but I would sound a note of caution. An over-emphasis on statistics can lead to focusing too much on things that are easy to measure, while ignoring things that are more difficult to measure. (Critics of NAPLAN testing in schools have often made this point)

Street stalls

Ben doubts the value of street stalls, because the Green Left sales figures are often fairly low. He says:

I don’t think most street sales of the paper are a useful prioritisation of members’ time…

Not that all street reachout (including selling papers) is bad, and not doing any would probably be a worse problem. But there is an opportunity cost for the hours of running stalls that sell a scant handful of papers.  Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have any real accounting of either the benefits or the opportunity cost of this kind of effort.

It is true that the number of papers sold at a street stall is often small. But selling papers is not the only thing we do on stalls.

We advertise coming events, both for Socialist Alliance and for movements we are involved in. Such events can include demonstrations, public meetings and film shows.

We collect names for our contact list.

We sell badges (important for fund raising).

We talk to people, explaining our ideas and listening to their opinions. We may find that some of them are active in various movements, and this can help us build links with people we can work with. Regular stalls in a particular locality can help us build links that may be useful in a local election campaign.

Whether a stall in a particular area is worthwhile is a matter of political judgment, not simply a matter of looking at sales figures (though of course sales figures are an important index of our success).

Of course, street stalls must be balanced against other potential uses of comrades’ time. We should recognise that some comrades may not like participating in street stalls, for a range of reasons. For example, they may be discouraged by low sales rates, or intimidated by hostile comments from some people opposed to our politics. In some cases, their negative attitude to street selling may change if they are given more support and encouragement. In other cases, it may be better if they are given other tasks.


Ben says:

Our electoral work is another thing we persist at without a strong analysis (that I’ve seen) of how we have gone, or how it may change. The latest Federal election results were given an upbeat report in Green Left, but our vote is so small that it is hard to distinguish a change in it from statistical noise. Perhaps a proper statistical analysis of the changes in our vote over the years would be worthwhile to give some more confidence to our pronunciations.

I am an avid reader of electoral statistics. I always look at our voting figures, and how they have changed from the previous election. I try to think of explanations for changes in our vote.

For example, our vote in the electorate of Wills went down at the last federal election. This surprised me, because I thought our vote would have gone up, given the amount of work we have done in the area since the previous election (Wills largely corresponds to the Moreland local government area, where Sue Bolton has been a councillor).

I think there are several reasons for this decline, including the increased number of candidates contesting the seat, and the huge resources which the Greens put into campaigning in the area, overshadowing our modest effort.

But in my opinion another factor was the intense media campaign that blamed us (wrongly) for the violence that occurred on the day of the Coburg anti-racism rally. This media campaign did not affect the more politically active and aware people in the area, who supported us for calling the rally, but it may have affected a lot of ordinary workers who rely on the mainstream media for their news.

It would be good if we could do a survey to find out why voters voted the way they did, but we don’t have the resources to do this in a scientific way. We can only rely on impressions gained by talking to people while selling the paper.

If my interpretation is correct, i.e. if a lot of Moreland residents blame us for the violence in Coburg, it will increase the difficulty of getting Sue Bolton re-elected in the local council elections in October. We need to think about whether there is anything we can do to counter this.

The number of votes we get is one measure of the success of an election campaign, but it is not the only one. In evaluating whether a campaign was worthwhile, we should look at the number of people who actively supported us (letterboxing, polling day duties, donations etc), the opportunities to address candidates forums, the response from the audience at those forums, the opportunity to get our message into the local paper, the number of people who apply to join Socialist Alliance after reading our material and/or hearing our candidate, etc.  Once again, it is a matter of political judgment, rather than relying solely on statistics.

Ben questions the value of our Senate campaigns. He probably has in mind the Victorian campaign, rather than the NSW one which was clearly successful. I think that in Victoria the main problem was the lateness of our decision to run in the Senate. We need to have candidates preselected before the date of the election is actually announced, so that we are ready to go immediately the election is called. We need to have draft leaflets and internet memes ready to go.