Politics and Statistics Collide in Argentina
William Seltzer rotates off the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights at the end of 2012, after serving as committee chair since 2009. He has had a long career in government statistics, including service as director of the UN Statistical Office. He became an ASA Fellow in 1975.
Joseph B. “Jay” Kadane is Leonard J. Savage University Professor of Statistics and Social Sciences, Emeritus, at Carnegie Mellon University and vice-chair of the ASA’s Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights. His most recent book is Principles of Uncertainty.
In 2007, when the government of Argentina fired the staff of the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INDEC) division responsible for compiling consumer price indices (CPI), few organizations and fewer news outlets took notice of the politically motivated move.
The American Statistical Association (ASA) first became involved in the controversy in 2009, when then-ASA President Sally Morton sent a letter to the Sociedad Argentina de Estadística voicing the association’s support for the independence of Argentina’s national statistical agencies.
Urgency ramped up in 2011 when the government first levied administrative fines of up to $150,000 against Graciela Bevacqua, former director of INDEC’s CPI division; economist Nicholas Salvatore; and several others before filing criminal charges against them for compiling and releasing to the media independently developed price indices. Immediately realizing the significant implications of these actions by the government on scientific freedom and free speech in Argentina, the ASA began the process of defending its targeted colleagues in Argentina. ASA Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights (CSFHR) chair, William Seltzer, sent a letter of inquiry to the Argentine government in April of 2011; this communication went unanswered.
Four months later, the ASA appealed to the United Nations to intervene in what it viewed as the systematic intimidation and violation of the free speech and scientific freedom rights of the statisticians. In a letter to Frank La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Seltzer and ASA Executive Director Ronald L. Wasserstein urged the UN to safeguard the statisticians.
“We fear that unless the government is dissuaded from acting on the threats that they have so far made, considerable harm may befall a group of statisticians simply carrying out their work in accordance with the highest professional and ethical standards and that a great disservice will be done to civil society in Argentina,” explained Seltzer and Wasserstein.
The ASA’s efforts spurred additional support for the Argentine statisticians from the International Statistical Institute; Institute of Mathematical Statistics; and the national statistical societies in Brazil, France, Korea, and the United Kingdom.
Days before the 2012 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM)—in response to a long-planned session called “Repression of Statistics and Statisticians by the Argentine Government”—the Argentina Embassy in Washington, DC, sent a document to the ASA from INDEC officials defending the government’s actions. The communication claimed the methodology used by INDEC’s Consumer Price Index Office is consistent with Argentina law and international requirements and also requested that the ASA release its letter at the JSM session; the ASA honored this request.
Following JSM, the ASA again renewed its calls for the Argentine government to end the repression of the statisticians in a letter to Jorge Argüello, Argentina’s ambassador to the United States: “We hope the Argentine government will recognize the right of individuals and independent organizations to produce their own estimates and immediately rescind the fines and end the threats of criminal sanctions against individuals, organizations, and the press. Only then can the questions of appropriate methodology for computing the CPI and the extent of inflation in Argentina be debated in an atmosphere free of repression and intimidation,” wrote Seltzer and Wasserstein.
Most recently, the ASA appealed to the U.S. State Department for assistance. In an early September letter to Michael Posner, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Seltzer and Wasserstein called on U.S. diplomats to intervene with the Argentine government “to resolve this continuing violation of basic human rights to scientific freedom and free speech.”
Recent news has been more favorable for Bevacqua, Salvatore, and their supporters. In September, the criminal case against the pair was dismissed by an economic criminal judge who ruled that “the allegations could not be considered as constituting a crime and, as such, were insufficient to cause criminal intervention of the State.”
Each had faced two to six years of incarceration if they had been found guilty. “This was not a case for price speculation in the markets, but an attack on free speech,” said a defiant Bevacqua, although the Argentina government could appeal the ruling.
Criminal charges against others are still pending. Additionally, the government has yet to rescind the administrative fines levied against Bevacqua, Salvatore, and others who published inflation numbers displeasing to the government. The Argentine government also is refusing to back down to International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands to publish accurate inflation and growth data using accepted international statistical methodology by December 7.
In remarks to the United Nations in September, Argentina President Cristina Fernandez ridiculed the IMF warning, saying, “[My country] … is a sovereign nation that makes its decisions sovereignly and will not be subjected to any pressure, let alone to any threat.” A day later at a talk the president made at Georgetown University, she reiterated the view that government was correct in moving against those who released estimates using methods disapproved of by the government.
While some progress has been made in this ongoing controversy, the ASA and its Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights will continue to work with other concerned organizations and government agencies to resolve this issue. You can support colleagues in Argentina by lending your assistance to the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights. To join the effort, email Seltzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or vice chair Joseph Kadane at email@example.com.
About the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights
As stated in the committee’s charge, approved by the ASA Board most recently in 2010, the committee concerns itself with violations of and threats to the scientific freedom and human rights of statisticians and other scientists throughout the world [and] … assists scientific societies or other responsible organizations on statistical questions relating to data on human rights or the use of data to limit human rights.
The committee was established in 1979 as an ad hoc committee and then, in 1982, as a regular committee. (For more information about the committee’s early history, see “Human Rights of Statisticians and Statistics of Human Rights: Early History of the American Statistical Association’s Committee on Scientific Freedom and Human Rights” in Statistical Methods for Human Rights, edited by Jana Asher, David Banks, and Fritz Scheuren.)
Over the course of its more than 30 year history, members of the committee—working in collaboration with successive ASA executive directors and boards—have assisted statisticians and allied professionals targeted for persecution for their scientific work or their views and activities in violation of internationally recognized human rights norms. A unique feature of the committee’s work is the authority it has to write, at its own initiative, politely worded letters of inquiry to government officials concerning possible human rights violations or threats that have come to the committee’s attention.
Such letters have been credited with ameliorating the conditions, or even saving the lives, of statisticians being persecuted. At other times, such as with Argentina, the committee has had to request the ASA Board or Executive Committee to follow up with formal letters. The committee often assists the ASA Board and officers in preparing drafts of such letters and mobilizing international support.