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The beauty of numbers

By Noel Ihebuzor

Numbers have this quality and attraction of precision, indeed of elegant precision. “70 people were employed” is more elegant and more precise than saying a number of persons were employed. A large number of us are thus fascinated and attracted by numbers. Honest men and women lace their public utterances with numbers because they are verifiable. But, and alas, because claims made with numbers are verifiable, they are also falsifiable.

Remember the 97% and 5% inclusive development wahala? It was about numbers and precision. Lately I hear that some senior official of this government was quoted as saying that 70% of Nigerians are satisfied with this administration. That statement has the elegance of elegant precision, that is until you start querying how the 70% was arrived at in the first place. Was a study conducted? If yes, where and when and by whom? If yes, how was the sampling done? And what tools were used? And what steps were taken to ensure the validity and reliability of the tools so used? In the absence of valid answers to such questions, such use of numbers in public statements lurches to imprecision and to the abuse and misuse of numbers. I hear one other official said the other day that only a few Nigerians are complaining of hardship in our current situation. Now that is imprecision as the adjective few is not precise. One man’s few is another woman’s many. But the type of imprecision in the claim implied by the use of few is honest imprecision because the speaker is also revealing that he does not have precise data to back up his claim. I prefer it to the use of numbers without empirical backing. Yes, it is “fuzzy-speek”, but at least, it is honest. Use of numbers without empirical backing is not proper and actually amounts to abuse and misuse of numbers, and we must all realize that numbers too have feelings and should be treated with some respect.

Incidentally, the assays of these two officials were indeed unnecessary as their principal had in a recent message appealed to Nigerians to bear the present hardships (which was caused by the last administration) with forbearance, implying that indeed, ground no level but say no be him cause am!! So, why these officials would be tearing their Christmas or Sallah dresses when their principal has owned up is something that beats me a 100% of the time!


Development and policy analyst with a strong interest in the arts and inclusive social change. Dabbles occasionally into poetry and literary criticism!

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