01/05/2016 04:45 EST | Updated 01/05/2017 05:12 EST

Syrian Refugees And The Numbers Game

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Canada's new Liberal government pledged to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2015. They missed the mark. Predictably, opposition parties (Conservatives in particular) have focused on the numerical gap, declaring it as an early example of Liberal broken promises. And technically, it is. But who cares? The point is that people are arriving in Canada with a warm welcome and a new future.

The error the Liberals made was to put a nicely rounded numerical target by which critics could measure success or failure.

Numbers coming from the government and political operatives should give pause to any observer. Why? Because rarely do either have the expertise or data sources to make reliable predictions. When they do, other factors come into play that skews the totals. The usual culprit is misguided optimism to demonstrate competence or distinguish from the opposition.

My first experience with the misguided use of numbers was back in the day (OK, way back in the day) when I ran Ontario's apprenticeship program. We were in the habit of promising to increase the number of apprentices by many thousands each year. To make matters worse, we also committed to increasing the number of women in "non traditional" trades. Laudable goals indeed. The only problem was that we had no control over either situation.

Apprentices are almost entirely hired by the private sector according to their market needs. While apprentices signed a Contract of Apprenticeship with the government, there was no way of knowing how many of these were terminated and how many were active. We, therefore, had no reliable method for determining if the goals were achieved. Success was declared anyway. Our annual reports to the public were glowing.

Further (and more serious) examples include government budget forecasts, particularly economic growth and projected revenue. Economic growth depends on a world of global factors and revenue depends on economic activity. Neither is especially predictable and it shows. Yes, some prognostication is needed in order to prepare a budget, but don't bet on accuracy. Like refugee numbers, the inaccuracy of the sooth saying becomes fodder for critics.

Numbers are a funny thing. Does anyone really know the size of the federal deficit? The answer depends on your assumptions and more likely on your partisanship. You have questions. We have made up sums. That may be a bit harsh. Let's just say that the answer can be counted on the fingers and toes of the partisans.

Most of us are used to exaggeration and favourable spin on numbers. "If 6 Was 9" is not just a Jimi Hendrix song title. Sooner or later in real life, the truth will be revealed and most often six is just six. But at least there is a way of finding out. If not, why not just say, "Gee, I just don't know... depends on how you look at it?"

The Syrian promise could have easily been to bring in as many as possible, considering security and other factors, with an ultimate goal of 25,000. Most Canadians understand that moving large numbers of people across the globe in times of crisis is not a precise, predictable science. Do they really care what the exact number is on any give date?


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