Monday, October 30, 2006

Tall Tales

My fifteen-year old friend read from an internet site that one’s eyes roll to the left when one is fabricating stories. What prompted him to search through the net for tips on how to appear truthful when interrogated was an invitation from his school’s prefect after he was suspected of cheating in an exam.

My friend, who is somewhat obsessive-compulsive, tested this new knowledge on me and when it was validated partially he began to worry. I say partially because there were of course instances when the data he was getting from me, his guinea pig, did not conform to what he had read. But that did not remove his worries. The prospect of conversing with anyone, not just the prefect, started to terrify him. He might catch the other lying or worse, the other might catch him lying.

Fortunately, this guinea pig is a statistician or, more appropriately, a student of statistics. So I used my statistical knowledge—my eyes are rolling to the left—to assuage his worries. I told him that he must have missed out something in the study or perhaps the web owner forgot to mention them.

I explained to him that when talking about psycho-social, economic and even biological phenomena, like the movement of eyes, we do not talk in absolute certainties. (Even our seeing the sun tomorrow is still 50-50). We talk instead about probabilities - the likelihood of occurrence. Assertions easily become truisms when the concept of probabilities is left out.

The movements of the eyes do not necessarily determine the truthfulness or the falsehood of anybody’s words. Also, there is a need to inquire into the more basic questions on the data and study’s reliability. What if there is a problem with the talker’s eyes? What if that person, like him, is simply obsessive-compulsive and is merely fixated at that spot of dirt on the left side of the room? There are many questions to be asked which he failed to consider. Thus, he must read it again more carefully. Or better yet, not rely on it - honesty is still the best policy.

The same short-sightedness may lose us our own constitution.

Recently, Speaker Jose de Venecia and other Malacañang minions have been brandishing the “very strong will of the people” to change the constitution. I wonder to which side the Speaker’s eyes roll every time he does that although I am not really interested in that. I am interested in the integrity of his weapon—the so-called “people’s initiative”—against the constitution.

There are many questions to be asked about the initiative, chief among them is “Were the signatures authentic?”

Sigaw ng Bayan—no “n” after “i”—and other pro-charter change groups claimed to have gathered 6.3 million signatures. The number of signatures is close to 15 percent of the total registered voters.

The same proportion (15%) of respondent in the June 2006 SWS (Social Weather Station) survey revealed that they have been approached to sign a petition to change the constitution. But according to the survey, among those who were approached, less than half signed the petition and half did not. There is more than 1 percent who did not say whether they were approached or not. But even if we include them with those who signed the petition, it is still below the 12 percent of the total registered voters required for constitutional amendments through people’s initiative.

The SWS survey was done by random sampling and used face-to-face interviews. As a student of statistics, I know that this procedure is more reliable than that of the Sigaw ng Bayan initiative where they merely asked people to sign. Face-to-face interviews allow the correction of misconceptions and misunderstandings of survey questions. There are data gathering processes where the need to surprise the respondents is required but in the case of seeking support for constitutional amendments, we cannot do that. We cannot assume that people understand what are at stake. They must be made to understand.

Were the amendments shown to the petition signers? Yes, to half of them, according to the SWS survey. Did those who sign know what they were signing? Well, according to the survey, 48 percent of those who signed the petition said that they would vote “No” if a plebiscite to approve the constitutional amendments were held today. So, why sign the petition in the first place? Did the signers understand what they were signing for?

There is a myriad of questions about the procedure used by the advocates of the people’s initiative itself aside from the authenticity of the signatures.

Sigaw ng Bayan claimed that the petitions were written in the vernacular of the places were they were gathering signatures. Who wrote them? If they were originally written in English, who translated them? SWS surveys at least documented that a group of language experts translates their questionnaires into the vernaculars and another group of experts re-translates them into English to check whether there are discrepancies in the understanding of the questions.

The lack of transparency in the process of gathering the signatures is of course deliberate. Why should they let the signers know that part of the amendments proposed by the House of Representative is the elimination of the term limits of parliamentary assembly members, a.k.a. congresspersons, at least a quarter of whom are on their last terms?

I am not against constitutional amendments. Like many people, I am only questioning the haste and the motive of the people behind the move for amendment.

There are proper ways of gathering support for initiatives like amending the constitution. Like any other data gathering, these procedures require transparency, honesty and clarity. It is even required by R.A. 6735 or the law on constitutional amendment by initiative and referendum which the pro-charter change groups are using to support their current campaign. According to that law, the proposed constitutional changes must be specified and justified in a petition. The petition must be read and, of course, be understood clearly. Probable signers must be able to scrutinize the petition. They must be able to scrutinize the petition seekers—yes, even the eyes.