Eureka] National quirks add up for Europe: Andrew Marshall celebrates a different approach to statistics

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The Independent Online
STATISTICIANS of the world unite] It may not be the catchiest call to revolution, but the European Community has used it to do the seemingly impossible. It has produced a volume on the organisation of statistics in the EC that is interesting, amusing and witty.

The publication begins with a reminder of 'the golden age of Belgian statistics', and in particular of Quetelet, the man who revolutionised the collecting of numbers in the 19th century.

The writer Georges Als (Luxembourg's premier statistician), records the hopes and fears of his profession. The horrors of the public disorder that accompanied censuses in the United States and Belgium, or the anti-statistics revolt in Germany in 1981, are luridly recounted. There is a paean of praise to the Danes, who seem to have numbered, cross-referenced and analysed every thing that moves (and most of what doesn't). The heart of the problem, Mr Als admits, is that 'like taxes, statistics are unloved, although the former have the advantage of being feared'.

Quetelet's heir is Eurostat, an organisation that until yesterday was regarded as being efficient if rather dull. But its task is evidently Herculean. It is impossible to say even how many people in Europe are statisticians. As the study points out, it has its problems, partly because every European state has different traditions, methods and aspirations. Mr Als, a witty and entertaining writer, dissects each one.

'How are the mighty fallen,' is his verdict on the Belgians. The Danish organisation 'is notable for its spirit of adventure and its pioneering approach'. Germany is beset by domestic difficulties, and the evils of 'informational self-determination'. Greece is 'distinguished by a series of failings so impressive it must make the strongest-willed despair'.

The Spanish and the Portuguese are both fighting to establish new systems, 'at the threshold of a new age of discoveries'. France brings out the best in Mr Als, and he waxes lyrical. 'The system seems to have sprung monolithically from the loins of Zeus himself, just as Athene sprang from his head, fully armed.' Quoting Baudelaire, he says that Insee, the French statistical arm, is 'nothing but order and beauty, luxury, calm and sensuality'.

Italy is riven with paradox, halfway between hell and utopia. Luxembourg is, Mr Als concedes, 'dimensionally challenged'. With Ireland he gets particularly carried away, lamenting the statistical organisation's move to Cork, but praising its one-time head, T P Linehan, a poet, and reproducing two of his odes. The Netherlands is a strange place, populated by 'cheerful exhibitionists . . . who refuse to allow their sex and date of birth to be included in individual identifiers'.

And then there is Britain. It appears to be 'chaos' to Mr Als: 'The British statistical system . . . is only workable with the British, that is with people who have a quite extraordinary esprit de corps and sense of discipline.' There are more than 50 different departments, compared with the monoliths on the continent. Quetelet would have quaked.