Op-Ed Commentary

Andrew Brown: Mathematics against dictatorships

People don't know anything about statistics.

I was closely following the recent Venezuela Referendum, and I heard the president from the voting machine company (Smartmatic) say: "...of the 8000 or so voting centers, in 40 to 50 the 'No' repeated in all of its machines, and in 331 the 'Yes' did. That is a completely normal mathematical fluke...''

I was appalled when I heard those numbers, and even more so when I noticed that nobody was noticing!, of all the media present, only one Venezuelan newspaper bothered on reporting them, though to me these where the key to prove the magnitude of what was going on. If people knew anything about statistics, that is. A back of the envelope optimistic bound to the probability of that result, in an election like this, is equivalent to winning 6 Big lottery games in a row!!. And still, no one was noticing.

I could be persuaded to believe that Smartmatic didn't have anything to do with the tampering, as they had a lot to loose on this regard. The voting machine business is a fast expanding market in the whole world, and, contrary to their competitors, this particular Olivetti machine has all the characteristics that would make it ideal according to many experts in the field, as long as the process is implemented correctly, that is, which was far from the case here. A flawless performance in an election of the magnitude of the one going on in Venezuela would have allowed Smartmatic to completely corner the market, as most of their competitors fall far short of the basic requirements.

However Smartmatic had a tall order to follow, the Venezuelan 'President' has more than enough power in his hand, he has all the oil money from the state-run oil company, a finely tuned follower machinery, very intelligent and opportunistic people in his ranks, and all the resources of the state to pull this one off. There are a multitude of theories that have come out on how they managed to do it, but if people knew anything about statistics they would have realized that those 3 numbers where all they needed.

The Carter Center, when asked to look into it, must have misinterpreted the request and must have asked the Election Board for their numbers, took them at face value, and reported them. And when a reporter from the Wall Street Journal took them to his expert, and used the description that the opposition was using, but with the wrong numbers in hand, their expert said, as I would have, that those where fine. The article got widely quoted and the opposition became the winning oligarch instigators that the Carter Center, and the whole world, believes them to be.

All of Venezuela realized what was happening, democratic Chavistas realized the magnitude of their mistake, but the stage was set. The whole world could move on to bigger and better things, while a new Cuba was being born. But not a poor, agricultural based Cuba mind you, but an oil fueled one. With more that enough resources to force it's ideology around. All this while the world still believed that Mr. Chavez is a fine president, as most of the mainstream press seems to think. And he could keep this going for 8 or more years before anyone started to care, as now the elections would always be his. Venezuelans had been doomed.

How can someone pull off a feat of this magnitude?, you might ask, they have to have had a huge amount of corrupt people in their ranks!, what about the institutions?. Well, let me introduce you to the theory of evolution: "given any environment, only the fittest will survive to the next generation", Chavez made it progressively harder for people with high moral standards to remain at his side, Generals, Oil Industry CEOs, Vicepresidents, Politicians, Judges, Mayors, mid military ranks, etc., started chocking in this environment, and one by one migrated outside of it. The ones that could, left the country, the ones that couldn't have stayed around trying to survive, maybe peddling goods in the streets as many of the Venezuelan ex-middle class now have to do, but deprived of any power to be able to do anything about their government. Industry and press felt the extinction to come, many still hold on as hard as they can, but many had to concede to survive. In this environment it is clear that month by month, year, by year, the people around you will be the ones that you need to pull something like this off.

However, the democratic will of Venezuelans saved the day, they pushed extremely hard against a system that was designed to keep them out. A system that was playing the abstention card to coerce a ratification, a system that shuffled it's feet in the opposition dominated sectors of the country, while fleetingly went by in the Chavez dominated ones. Venezuelans stayed in line for 18 hours or more, but they would not leave until they casted their vote. Was this, and this alone, that exposed such a huge statistical flaw on the data.

But then, I guess that it's a good thing that people don't know anything about statistics, as then Smartmatic wouldn't have been allowed to provide those three numbers so freely for those of us that do.

Edgar Brown is a venezuelan with an Electronic Engineering degree from the USB (Cum Laude), Master Degrees in Electronics (USB), and Applied Math (GATech), and also an ex-professor from the USB, represented Venezuela in the international mathematics olympiads in 1982, at the present works has a Research Engineer, in the Laboratory for Neuro Engineering of the Georgia Institute of Technology (rr@edgarbrown.org). Its views are not necessarily those of PETROLEUMWORLD.

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Petroleumworld News 08/26/ 04

Copyright Edgar Brown 2004, All rights reserved

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