“FACTS are stubborn,” wrote Mark Twain, “but statistics are more pliable.” Because made-up GDP and borrowing figures can trick creditors into lending more cheaply, and fiddled inflation numbers can cover up economic woes, politicians are sometimes tempted to tweak data. It is the job of statisticians to keep numbers honest.

Occasionally, at a high price. In 1937 Olimpiy Kvitkin, a Russian statistician in charge of a census of the Soviet Union, was arrested and shot. His error was to find that the country contained fewer people than Joseph Stalin had announced (the dictator’s brutal policies may have explained the shortfall).

Less extreme, but nonetheless shocking, is the case of Andreas Georgiou, who has gone from Greece’s chief statistician to its chief scapegoat. Mr Georgiou’s crime? Estimating that the government’s budget deficit in 2009 was 15.4% of GDP.

Never mind that the first estimate of this figure had been only a little lower, at 13.6% of GDP. Never mind repeated confirmation from the European Commission that Mr Georgiou’s numbers were accurate. Never mind, too, his 21 years of experience at the IMF. Detractors across the political...Continue reading