On the forgotten Czech Statistical Office birthday, reasons for optimism and the right to meddle in politics
I met Jan Fischer at the University of Economics in Prague, where he lectures foreign students as part of a newly accredited international master’s programme. Although his CV encompasses many important roles, including candidate for President, Vice President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, he has spent most of his career at the Czechoslovak and Czech Statistical Office. Today he describes himself as a working pensioner who focuses on lecturing and the issue of innovation, and who continues to work as an advisor to the Czech Statistical Office. Together, we looked back at 100 years of the Czechoslovak Statistical Office, a birthday the media has somewhat forgotten.
In preparing for this interview, I had that Czech song of my youth, “Statistika nuda je” (Statistics is Boring) going through my mind, and I remembered my maths teacher at elementary school, who claimed that mathematics wasn’t for girls and also my worries about the maths exam I had to take for the IFTG programme at the University of Economics. Statistics certainly isn’t boring, and my interview with Jan Fischer was one of the most stimulating I have had, in terms of both breadth and depth.
We’re meeting at the University of Economics, so let’s start with today’s generation of young students. How do you see the young generation? And how are they doing in mathematics, a subject much feared in the Czech Republic?
It is very common for the older generation’s attitude to the young to be rather critical, as is the claim that, “it wasn’t like that when we were young.” I try to avoid that, but I’m not always successful. Today’s youth are different. I notice their technological maturity; I might prefer more personal contact for myself to contact mediated by smartphones and computers. They certainly aren’t a cynical generation. If there’s something I worry about, then it’s bullying, although that has always been there, but hasn’t always been talked about. So I’m an optimist in regard to the young generation. In terms of mathematical knowledge, the most recent OECD study shows that mathematical knowledge in the Czech Republic is declining, although we have always achieved good results in mathematics. I personally support doing a maturita universal school leaving examination in maths, but I do respect the opinion of the current Education Minister, Robert Plaga, that we need first of all to agree on how to teach mathematics well. Mathematics isn’t just about mathematics itself. It’s also about a way of understanding the world, a mindset and logic. The young generation should adopt these approaches, leading to a particular way of looking at the world and life around us, more.
The successful first generation of post-revolution managers, and also ambassadors, were very often recruited from amongst graduates of the Czech Technical University (ČVUT). In another interview in this issue, Miroslav Stašek, State Secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, notes the success of the Indian education system in mathematics.
Mathematics really does offer huge opportunities. I recall that we had a lack of mathematical statisticians at the Czech Statistical Office (ČSÚ) in the 1990s. The then-President of the ČSÚ, Eduard Outrata, who had returned from Canada, suggested to me that we go to ČVUT to select suitable candidates from the Nuclear Physics Department. I was sceptical of this. I remember that we chose one particular candidate and he ended up becoming a real mainstay of the ČSÚ. So I came to realise that I could be wrong.
Let’s look at the Czechoslovak Statistical Office and its 100th birthday, which has been forgotten in the media. What is it that we citizens don’t know about the ČSÚ, but we should know?
I think that fortunately a lot is known about the ČSÚ. It isn’t awareness of the Office which is important really, but rather trust in it. I teach a lot to my students about trust and its importance. Credibility is the be-all and end-all, from choosing methods to using administrative data sources to spreading information. People have got to trust the products of official statistics in the form of figures, data and analyses. I’m glad that the ČSÚ ranks top in trusted institutions. (Author’s note: in 2018, the ČSÚ and Czech National Bank were in 4th position amongst most trusted institutions, trusted by 62% of citizens, while the top three positions were held by municipal councils, mayors and the Constitutional Court). You can lose your trust in a matter of hours, or perhaps even minutes, but it will take months or years to earn it again. So it’s not important that people know in detail about what goes on within the Office, but rather that they trust its production. On the other hand, the Office needs to be transparent enough so that it can communicate, present and defend the indicators and definitions it employs and its activities.
The public are probably aware of the name of Eduard Outrata, who worked in Canada for Statistics Canada. He returned to the Czech Republic in 1993 and became President of the Czech Statistical Office. There have undoubtedly been many more important figures and historical milestones over the past 100 years of history which the ČSÚ is celebrating this year.
I’d like to remind your readers that the Office wasn’t set up from scratch in 1919. It followed on from the previous Statistical Office of the Kingdom of Bohemia, which was of a very high standard. It thus had something to build on in terms of methodology, content and staff. It is also of interest to see that the new Czechoslovak politicians felt the need to have a high quality statistical institution available to them, which they could trust and which would take on responsibility for statistical activities in the newly established state within its new borders. As statisticians, we are proud that one of the first acts passed by the new parliament of the independent Czechoslovakia was the Act on a State Statistics Service in January 1919, which established the State Statistical Office. It still impresses me today how modern and concise this act was, containing the rights and obligations which characterises official statistics in a modern democratic society. The office had tremendous authority in demographic statistics, it undertook housing and population censuses to a very high standard, and it had soon mastered price, labour market and foreign trade statistics. Professor Dobroslav Krejčí, the Office’s first President, was rightly described as the “father of Czechoslovak/ Czech statistics”. Debates about statistics were held across the whole of society, and even President Masaryk made an active contribution. One of these debates was about the concept of nationality. There were discussions over whether nationality should be something one declares – by the way, this is one of the features of a democratic society – with citizens deciding for themselves their nationality and declaring this in the census form, or whether instead efforts should be made to ascertain an objective nationality on the basis of a set of common external elements, which was one of the proposed approaches. During the period of the First Republic, the Office provided a link between science, applied research and practice. Many expert practitioners also worked in academia. In the past decade, we have returned to this link between science and practice at the Czech Statistical Office. Statistics has its basis in science. I would also mention the interwar school of actuarial mathematics, which was world-class, and Professor Emil Schoenbaum, who emigrated to escape the Nazis. He returned then again escaped following the communist coup in 1948. The communists didn’t need actuarial mathematics. Basically that English term “flourishing” could be used to describe statistics during the pre-war period.
You’ve mentioned the links between statistics and politics, and not always in a beneficial sense. How independent can statistics actually be?
I’ve already spoken about trust. Credibility is linked to other traits such as independence, consistency, political impartiality, timeliness and transparency. Political impartiality is the be-all and end-all of how statistics operates in a democratic society. Statistics acts with methodological independence, both in selecting indicators and in publishing them. I often tell my students that statistics mustn’t be cynical, closed to debate or detached from current events. In terms of disclosing information, the fundamental rule is that no political or economic subject should be favoured: basically facts and causality should be presented without praise or criticism. Analysis is at the core of doing statistics; without it, statistics is just a “data graveyard”. There are often debates around the world as to whether statistics authorities should make forecasts. There are different models. In some countries, such as in France, statistics authorities do forecasts. Here in the Czech Republic, since 1993 we have adopted the approach that the statistics authority should not make forecasts. When you make forecasts, this inevitably gives rise to expectations from many parties, whether these be markets, analysts, politicians or the public. Some forecasts may raise expectations then incorporated into other predictions, e.g. from the Ministry of Finance or the central bank. It is of note that both Brussels and Luxembourg, where Eurostat is based, neither require nor prohibit forecasts. It is worth mentioning here that while statistics takes great care to ensure standardised data, common definitions, classifications and methodologies, there are no rules about how to organise a statistics office. There are various models in Europe, where there are centralised statistics services and partially decentralised services, where specific ministries are charged with performing statistics services and where a central statistics office plays the role of co-ordinator of the entire system. This is the case for the Czech Republic.
Let us move on to another topic you work on, specifically support for science and innovation. Two countries outside Europe are regularly placed at the top of the rankings in this area: Israel and South Korea. A lot is said about Israel, but what inspiration do you think South Korea can give us?
In terms of the organisation of science and research, South Korea can serve as a model for us in drive, in resolve and in a determination to promote and achieve determined goals. I had the opportunity to undertake a short placement in Korea when I studied the country’s modern post-war history. Its development and progress is best seen when you compare photographs of postwar Seoul, which the front passed through three times during the Korean War, with photographs of today’s modern city. Korea has very well-organised research, well-thought out science management, and a lot of attention is paid to co-operation with industry even in academic education, allowing for a rapid transferral of knowledge to practice. In the Czech Republic, this approach can be seen in Nexen Tire in Žatec’s industrial park. The added value of this enterprise for the Czech economy is not just based on job creation, but in particular on inspiring close co-operation between science, research and industry within the entire process not just of manufacture, but also management of the business.
Finally, I would like to ask you about your optimism in regard to the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. You are an optimist, but you admit that it is becoming ever-harder to “be an optimist and remain an optimist”. You’ve also said that “winning an election doesn’t give you carte blanche”.
I remain optimistic, especially in regard to the Czech Republic. At a global level, after the collapse of the dual model of geopolitical order we were too slow in finding a unifying paradigm. After the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, we had the feeling that we had found ourselves in a new situation, but we were unable to appreciate the depth of the change. The paradox of today’s world is that despite the massive amount of data, analyses and statistics we have, its potential for making prognoses is very weak. We lack the ability to predict at a global level. Nor were we able to predict the recession of 2009/2010. Renowned international organisations at that time were predicting roughly 2% GDP growth for the Czech Republic in 2009. The first figures I received as newly designated Prime Minister from the Czech Statistical Office for the first quarter of 2009 did not show 2% growth, but rather a 4% fall. This weak predictive ability is reinforced by the so-called black swan effect. (Author’s note: this refers to a major, but unexpected, event with a massive impact on society. Because it represents a deviation from normal progression, it is difficult to predict.) The Arab Spring is one of those situations which we understood and interpreted poorly. The world is full of deep geopolitical wrinkles which we are unable to grasp. We are two or more steps behind developments. Because the world is becoming so complex, those who offer (often false) oversimplifications come to power and influence. Populists of all kinds offer oversimplifications in the form of political slogans, facile solutions, evoking expectations or promising that they will come up with a solution if they receive the votes of the electorate. I reject the reduction of politics to a method of getting into power. The political world is broader and belongs to the people and individual groups, to the population in general and to non-governmental organisations, and even if I don’t always agree with them I must give them the space. Politics isn’t a reserved or privatised space only for politicians. We all have the right to meddle in politics, because we are part of it.
By Linda Štucbartová