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Good stats

/ 01:32 AM November 28, 2014

There is a saying, “no news is good news,” which comes out of the idea that something is newsworthy only if it is about disasters, crimes and scandals.

Notice how all the bad news is now often embellished by “bad” statistics—for example, the plunge in the approval ratings of our officials, stock market declines, or a drop in the Philippines’ ranking in some international survey. These “bad” statistics make good news—well, good in the sense of selling newspapers.

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If ever there are more positive statistics, people almost look at the figures with cynicism and suspicion. When a politician’s approval ratings rise, for example, critics claim the results were manufactured. When poverty ratings drop, again there are people claiming the surveys were manipulated.

It is almost as if we are biologically programmed to want to be miserable with bad news and bad statistics.

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I do train my students to look at statistics carefully, to be more discerning concerning who was behind the survey, the sampling method, the types of questions, the statistical significance.

But it is important to look at positive statistics, not just to appreciate the positive news from the statistics but to do more analysis and see how we might move from good to better, if not best.

Pause now and think: Have there been positive statistics lately?

You’re probably hard-pressed to reply. Yet I’ve been encouraged by some recent survey results which give us good news about the Philippines and Filipinos. I’m going to give three examples with a longer discussion for the last one. I’m deliberately not giving actual statistics, just to emphasize how much good news can be derived from positive statistics.

Tobacco use declining

Earlier this year the Demographic Research and Development Foundation released figures from its Young Adult Fertility and Sexuality (YAFS) study. As expected, the media picked up statistics about a rise in premarital sex. Hardly anyone reported on a decline in the use of tobacco, drugs and alcohol, which was already reported in an earlier YAFS survey. It seems that the decline, which started in the 1990s, has been sustained and we continue to make progress.

I can hear the naysayers: “The respondents lied.” And if I were to join the cynicism bandwagon, I could also say that for premarital sexual experience, the males lied, claiming they already had sex when they’ve never even come close.

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But hey, here’s another bit of good news from the National Tobacco Use Survey which, like the YAFS, is conducted every few years. After several years of stagnation in the number of current smokers, former smokers and new smokers, there was finally a breakthrough: The number of new smokers significantly declined.

That finding supports the YAFS statistics for tobacco use. It looks like younger people are not picking up tobacco in as large numbers as before. Since research shows that if you get through young adulthood without starting to smoke, you’re unlikely to start later in life. So this finding of fewer new smokers has long-term positive consequences.

Again, people will say, Oh, but I see so many young people still smoking. I could again jump on the cynicism bandwagon and say, Yes, yes, even in UP campuses we still see many students smoking.

But surveys capture the big picture. The decline in the number of new smokers does not mean smoking (and smokers) have died out. It will take many more years to eradicate tobacco use but we are at least making progress.

Even more importantly, the decline in new smokers seems to be related to the “sin” taxes. As cigarettes become more expensive, it becomes more difficult for young people—who have less money—to buy cigarettes.

Yes, yes, we do have mighty cigarette manufacturers who seem to have been able to evade the “sin” taxes and provide cheap cigarettes, mainly targeting the poor and the young, so that’s another battlefront for antitobacco activists.

Corruption

We come now to a third survey with some positive results.

This is the 2013 National Household Survey on Experience with Corruption in the Philippines, conducted by the Office of the Ombudsman. Here I’m going to give some figures.

This survey on corruption, reported in the Wednesday issue of the Inquirer, involved more than 10,000 respondent-families and looked mainly at small-scale corruption—so-called facilitation money (lagay). This was the second survey of its kind, the first having been conducted in 2010.

In 2010, about 10 percent of the respondents admitted to giving bribes. In the latest survey, the figure had dropped to 5 percent. The decline was found for all types of small-scale corruption: payment of taxes and duties (6.1 to 0.5 percent), access to justice (9.9 to 2.3 percent) and securing registry documents and licenses (10.3 to 2.1 percent).

That’s improvement, and really now, would people lie about giving bribes? It’s been so much a part of our lives that people actually think you’re stupid if you don’t give merienda money.

The nation’s attention has focused on large-scale corruption, as in the Napoles pork plunder, but small-scale corruption is important, too, mainly because it has more adverse effects on the poor.

Already short on cash, they have to shell out more money just to get a business permit, for example. I am curious if bribes to traffic law enforcers were included here, because that’s another area where the poor are terribly harassed, to the point where they have to pay protection money even without any violations.

Surveys stop with the numbers. What we need is to find out the circumstances behind the practices. With the tobacco use survey, for example, we should now look at the current smokers, asking why they continue to smoke, and the former smokers, to find out how they quit, and stayed off cigarettes.

With the corruption survey, we could look at how streamlining bureaucratic procedures might have helped to bring down bribes. Maybe, too, the role of public education on what can be done, without fixers.

I have to refer to some of the negative findings in the corruption survey: In 2013, more respondents reported a government official or employee asking for bribes than in 2010. We could look on the bright side and say this reflects a public less willing to offer bribes, but we also need to be scientific and look at what it is that emboldens civil servants to solicit the lagay. The focus should be on impunity, which seems to go all the way from the neighborhood cop to high-ranking government officials.

I’d also add here a study identifying all kinds of corruption. A survey last year on trust among Filipinos showed that the educational sector had low levels. I speculate that this is because in many public schools and some private schools, teachers are known to offer tutoring as a way to ensure passing marks for students. There are also other forms of corruption, such as mandatory field trips and activities where the teachers are known to get a cut in the fees.

Corruption is still formidable, but let’s appreciate the good news and good stats that come out as encouragement for the anticorruption efforts.

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E-mail: [email protected]

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