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FREDERICK Ho Wing-huen has a ready answer for fellows who throw him the line “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

“Statistics do get into some awkward situations, becoming the victim of damned people including some ‘damned statisticians’, of course,” he says, with a smile. “Indeed, the very task of a good statistician is to expose misuses and abuses of statistics.”

Mr Ho, who spent 34 years as a statistician with the civil service, including the top posting of Commissioner for Census and Statistics from 1992 until his retirement in 2005, believes that it is important that the public has a basic level of “statistical literacy” so that they can benefit from using available statistics and can discern for themselves whether or not a statement made by others about certain data is proper.

The importance of an informed public quickly became obvious when Mr Ho took the top posting 16 years ago. At that time, statistics were often greeted with suspicion. “For example, with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), people would say ‘the price of rice has gone up 20%! How can you say the CPI has gone up only 6, 5 or 4%?’. They did not realise that a lot of other products, which had not experienced price hikes, were also included in the index.”

Statistics gaining acceptance

Mr Ho is very pleased that through the emphasis on scientific principles, professional ethics and international standards, Hong Kong’s official statistics have gradually gained general trust among the local and international communities.

Over the years, Mr Ho grew adept at handling tricky situations, such as dealing with irate citizens who took offence at being asked highly personal questions (e.g. about issues such as abortion, drug-taking and stealing). One sensitive issue that caused Mr Ho a considerable headache was when his department had to ask members of the public if they had any children born out of registered marriage. “Imagine what an older woman would say if asked that. She would say ‘Go to hell!’. So we decided to use a special method known as the ‘randomised response technique’.”

Mr Ho grins when he remembers this rather simple, but ingenious technique, which he learned in the United States on one of his overseas study visits. It worked like this: the interviewer would ask the respondent to put his/her hand into a bag containing a number of photo film holders, some with a lid and some without. The respondent would pick one (his/her hand still inside the bag) and not tell the interviewer which one.

Keeping a lid on embarrassment

The interviewer would then give the respondent two questions — one about the private, sensitive matter and the other about catching taxis — and the former would tell the latter that if he had picked the holder with a lid he should answer the question about taxis, and if not, he should answer the personal question. The formats of the answers to the two different questions were the same, for example: [a] represented “none”, [b] represented “one”, [c] represented “two”, and so on. In this way, he could answer truthfully without embarrassment since the interviewer did not know which question he was answering. The answer “b” could mean “one child’ or “one taxi trip”! The data thus obtained, together with separate data collected about taxi travel, would enable the data required of the sensitive subject to be estimated with relevant statistical formulas. Details about the technique are commonly available from statistical texts.

A Hong Kong childhood

Mr Ho has fond memories of growing up in Hong Kong after moving here from Shanghai at the age of 4. His family, like many others in Hong Kong at that time, was involved in the textiles industry, running a small cloth-wholesaling business. He says that he knew the streets of Sham Shui Po like the back of his hand, having to walk back and forth through the area on the way to the school situated there from his home on the Hong Kong Island at the age of 11. Ever since, he has enjoyed visiting various parts of Hong Kong on foot or by bus, marvelling at how the city had changed over the years.