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Statistics and Human Rights

1 November 2012 1,530 views No Comment

ASA participates in focus group on science and human rights

Ali Arab, born in Tehran, Iran, is an assistant professor of statistics in the department of mathematics and statistics at Georgetown University.

Article 15 of International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights recognizes both scientific research freedoms and the right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications as human rights. The role of statistics in this viewpoint is of particular importance. On the one hand, the scientific community (including statisticians) is becoming increasingly more aware of these rights and thus, advocates scientific freedoms when and where these freedoms are violated. On the other hand, in practice, statistics plays an important role in human rights–related projects and, in particular, those that require interaction of science and human rights (i.e., data collection and analysis is often needed). Thus, one should examine human rights implications of statistics in both statistics as a science and statistical data as a scientific tool that serves other disciplines.

On September 13, 2011, 13 ASA members attended a focus group on the United Nation’s Article 15 project organized by the Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS SHRC). The goal of the focus group was to identify issues related to Article 15 that are specific to the science of statistics and the statistics community. AAAS SHRC has organized similar sessions with more than a dozen other scientific societies to date.

ASA and AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition
The ASA has been an active participant in and member of the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition since its launch in January 2009. For almost four years, this expanding network of scientific and engineering societies has been working to build bridges between science and human rights. Some of the outputs of the coalition in the past few years include the Primer: Scientific Freedom and Human Rights, a workshop on connecting science, engineering, and human rights beyond human subjects research; the Starter Kit: Helping Your Society Promote Human Rights, a training workshop for human rights practitioners on impact evaluation; and a series of focus groups to determine the meaning of the right to benefit from scientific progress from the perspective of scientists.

    Statisticians have a long-standing history of involvement in human rights, and their participation in coalition activities reflects this.

    The ASA participants consisted of a diverse group of statisticians from academia, government, and private industry. Members of the focus group discussed many aspects of the role of statistics in human rights problems, as well as rights of statisticians as a community and as individual scientists. For example, under Article 15, governments are committed to recognizing the right of everyone to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. Along these lines, the focus group participants identified the main themes as benefits of statistics to society (and thus, promoting the socially responsible practice of statistics), expanding primary education of statistics, ease of public access to data, data accuracy and quality, and protection of privacy in sampling and data analysis.

    Two instances given were the benefit of objective analysis of information and measuring the effectiveness of various programs. Also, discussants identified the roles of the government in maintaining Article 15 concerning statistics as involvement of statisticians in data-driven policymaking processes, development of regulations on collection, and usage of data collection to limit the misuse of data in procedures that may lead to human rights violations.

    For the aspect of Article 15 requiring governments to conserve, develop, and diffuse science, the discussants summarized that the government should maintain the development and diffusion of statistics by increasing funding for development of statistical methodology, promoting the dissemination of statistical knowledge and methodology in society, promoting the use of statistics in policy formulation and implementation, and expanding statistics education and statistical literacy in K–12 education.

    Regarding conservation of statistics, the discussants agreed that the government should improve its practices of maintaining better data storage and IT security procedures, improve and expedite efforts to restore historical data that may be in obsolete formats (e.g., index cards, etc.), and improve and standardize data archival practices within its agencies. Moreover, the government should maintain independent and accurate statistics. This requires the government to constantly oversee, adjust, and improve the statistical procedures used by the relevant agencies in developing official statistics. To this end, interaction and a close working relationship between the government statistical community and academic and private sector statisticians can be beneficial.

    The focus group also identified benefits of statistics to personal decisions. For example, easy public access to data on housing, schools, public health, and financial matters can have a positive impact in the community at the personal level, because individuals can make better-informed decisions. With the increasing popularity of data collection and widespread usage of devices that can collect data cheaply and easily, this aspect of benefit of statistics is expected to play an important role in decisionmaking processes at both the community and individual levels.

    Finally, the focus group agreed that the statistics community should encourage its members to increase interdisciplinary collaboration with other disciplines that may have social justice and human rights implications and suggested several topics as issues that the statistics community should promote to improve its role in benefiting society. These topics included promotion of international collaborations, access to the results and benefits of research, and standardization of data practices. For example, the statistics community and the government should work together and decide on common data formats for federal data, as well as designate a federal organization such as the Federal Trade Commission to handle the requests and transmission of federal data between the United States and other countries while maintaining standard guidelines on the data-usage restrictions. The statistics community should also work with the government to ensure privacy and disclosure protections of survey respondents or human research subjects.

    In conclusion, as members of the statistics community, we should raise awareness regarding the misuses of statistics that may lead to human rights violations and identify potentials for violations of human rights based on our work. A simple example is to identify whether data and statistical analysis are being used for surveillance purposes, profiling, violation of privacy, or any other violations of basic human rights.

    We statisticians, as vital members of the scientific community, should recognize and promote Article 15 in our research, teaching, collaborative efforts, and interactions with the local and global scientific and public communities.

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