Politics & government Sci-fi

[2098] Of one data point

I am unsure if I am recalling this accurately but at back in my mind, amid cobwebs of vague memories, I somehow remember reading an Asimov’s short story in a stuffy old library at the Malay College in Kuala Kangsar. You will forgive me if it is not even Asimov’s writing. It may well be a work of some other science fiction author. What I do have vivid recollection is the subplot of the story, however. Through the retelling of it, I hope that it may cause others to refrain from committing hasty generalization.

The story is set some time in the far future, maybe on Earth, maybe on Trantor or at some other place, I do not know. What is important is that the realm of human knowledge has expanded greatly. This includes in the field of statistics and in particular, sampling methods used to ascertain public opinion.

Sampling methods used today in real life suffer from certain errors arising from randomness and uncertainty. Notice how each time a respectable polling agency in reports result of a survey, it includes the margins of error of the findings, or more accurately, the standard errors, along with the averages. In the science fiction, statisticians of the future have developed a way to eliminate, fully, the errors associated with sampling.

In fact, the field of statistics in that fiction has reached a stage so advanced that the opinion of the public can be gauged accurately by simply sampling a person, who is a member of the public. In other words, all that is required to make general inference about the society is just one data point.

A sample size of one and that is it.


Only one.


Oh my, I do not know how that gets in there.

Anyway, unfortunately in real life, reliability of a sample and therefore, the ability to generalize its statistics for inferential purposes decrease as the sample size decreases, more so at some range closer to zero. We are still finding ourselves a long way from living a statistician’s wet dream.

Yet, all too often in Malaysia today, individuals are quick to generalize the result of a by-election to describe national mood. It is perhaps acceptable to make an inference out of a series of by-elections held within a certain timeframe but it is dangerous to make a claim that a by-election signals a countrywide trend. It is dangerous because it is misleading.

A by-election only gauges the opinion of a certain type of individuals and these individuals are certainly not representative of the whole country. The voters in Bagan Pinang, from instance, are quite different from voters of Manei Urai, Datok Keramat, Damansara Utama or Likas. Although the national issues that they care about may coincide, their attitude toward the same issues is not the same due to their worldviews. And then, there are local issues. It is definitely safe to say that local issues that they face are different enough that one-size-fits-all approach is doomed to failure.

These voters, taken as whole, may provide some concrete statistics on the direction of national politics but individually in isolation, they are not so helpful.

With respect to Bagan Pinang, there are many other differentiating factors that further make result of its by-election unique to itself. As an example, not many areas have an army camp resides within its boundary. Another is its status as resort town, or rather, a resort town full of abandoned projects. Suffice to say, Bagan Pinang is not Malaysia.

Therefore, I have to disagree to sweeping statements made by multiple persons after the election. In The Star, Isa Samad was quoted as saying “The people of all races have spoken and this is an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s 1Malaysia concept.”[1] Deputy UMNO President Muhyiddin Yassin meanwhile said, “This is a significant victory and more importantly the people’s endorsement of the Prime Minister’s policies.”[2]

Perhaps, the people they are referring to are restricted to the voters of Bagan Pinang only. If it refers to Malaysians as a whole, then these two politicians and others who share similar tendency to generalize in so grandly a manner will have a hard time rationalizing trends in other areas.

This is not to say information from Bagan Pinang is worthless. It is not to say information that Bagan Pinang provides with national politics in mind is worthless. Rather, information from this by-election should be contextualized by taking into account several past and future by-elections held at different places if it is to make national sense. Without such contextualization, the one data point of Bagan Pinang might as well be a noise, or an outlier.

In the meantime, save a national election itself, the best barometers of national mood are countrywide surveys done properly. Unless, of course, we are living in a world created by that science fiction.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Isa thanked the people of Bagan Pinang for the victory, saying it was a win for Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s 1Malaysia concept.

“The people of all races have spoken and this is an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s 1Malaysia concept,” he told reporters.

Isa also thanked the Barisan machinery for working tirelessly during the by-election.

“I’m also happy that the Malays, Chinese and Indians are now with Barisan. I hope this will have a domino effect for Barisan in the future,” he said. [Polling Day Live Coverage: Isa wins with thumping majority. Sarban Singh. Zulkifli Abd Rahman. The Star. October 11 2009]

[2] — A beaming Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who was present when the official results were announced just after 8pm, said the people had endorsed Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 1Malaysia concept.

“This is a significant victory and more importantly the people’s endorsement of the Prime Minister’s policies. I congratulate the people of Bagan Pinang, including the Indians and Chinese, who came out in full support of Barisan,” he said at the tallying centre at the Port Dickson Muncipal Council hall. [Thumping win for Isa. Wong Sai Wan Sarban Singh. Zulkifli Abd Rahman. A. Lechutmanan. The Star. October 12 2009]

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

First published in The Malaysian Insider on October 12 2009.

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