(4 minute read) November 6th, 2018 – Another week and another controversy appears to engulf Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) and the Bahamian public in a heated exchange about sustainable (and affordable) energy generation.
A news article titled “Electricity bills will continue to climb” notes in its lead paragraph: “Electricity bills at Bahamas Power and Light (BPL) have risen in some instances to 70 percent, according to BPL Chairman Donavan Moxey.”
The CEO states: “The bills now have jumped significantly, my own personal bill has increased by 60 per cent, this past month has been fairly high, it’s probably been the highest it has ever been”.
Dr. Moxey provides a litany of reasons for the cost increases at BPL. However, regardless of the explanations, I empathize with the many Bahamians who struggle to meet daily (and monthly) expenses, including electricity bills. This is not welcomed news for me or my family.
As a public health practitioner, I strongly believe in the positive health and social impacts that can be gained from a shift in fossil fuel to renewable & sustainable energy use in our country (improved air and water quality, decrease in greenhouse gases, reduction of climate change impacts, increased funding for available for health, etc).
But, as a social scientist, this article is about the importance of using statistics in communication with the public.
In my field of public health and communication, we constantly utilize statistics to make it easier for the public to understand complex data, trends or situations. Misleading or misuse of statistics (or their interpretation) can pose a significant danger to the casual observer (or in my case, a policy maker) – if it results in the observer making uninformed or harmful decisions based on the misrepresented data.
We have seen this in case of our neighbours to the North and their President, who has misinterpreted, misrepresented (or simply made up statistics) in order to elicit a certain response from his base.
However, before getting into my analysis of this Bahamian incident – I want to clarify that I am neither attacking the Bahamian public, who rightfully should be upset by any continuing rise in their electricity bills NOR is this an attack on the press, who I respect as colleagues and who have to work in very difficult environments. This is a critique on the communication of statistics to the public, how this impacts interpretation of the data by public and how quickly decision making can spiral in the face of missing data.
The first time I heard about this 70% increase in electricity bills, was through a petition sent my way to demand that the Government of The Bahamas and Executives of BPL provide relief to Bahamians, who can not afford such a huge increase in electricity costs, on the back of increasing taxes.
My first response was to ask, where was the source of this data? This is something that we don’t do often as people, particularly in the digital media age. I immediately tried to find a press release, a report, something in writing that links to this quoted statistic. I eventually found the news article – quoted a few paragraphs above.
Then I tried to take note of any changes to kilowatt per hour (kWh) fuel surcharge fluctuations across 2018. I confirmed the following from another Bahamian news source (reconciled with my own BPL bills): “The fuel surcharge has steadily increased this year. In the February billing period it was 14.75 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh); in the March cycle it was 14.9 cents per kWh; in April, the surcharge rose to 15.68 cents per kWh; in May, it jumped to 17.46 per kWh; in June, it was 17.38 cents per kWh; in July, the surcharge per kWh was 19.46 cents; and in the August and September billing periods it was 19.15 cents per kWh. In October, it was also 19.15 cents.”
The 70% statistic being quoted and fuelling the fury of the Bahamian public can be viewed as a statistical fallacy (i.e. when a statistical reason involved is false or misapplied) without thinking about the following information.
1. What is the fuel surcharge for the month of November?
Most persons will have only received electricity bills that account for usage during the period September to October 2018. The fuel surcharge has remained unchanged for the past 3 months (August – October).
Is Dr. Donavan stating that the fuel surcharge has increased 70% compared to the previous billing period, to 32.55 cents per kWh, therefore, this will be reflected in a person’s bill?
Without the exact the fuel surcharge being communicated to the public – one cannot have a better understanding of how much their bill may increase (due to this factor), and therefore, is fuelling public anger and disappointment.
In the absence of this information, ‘an up to 70% increase’ of bills being directly linked to a fuel surcharge can be seen as a false causality. This is a statistical error when we incorrectly assume, an event directly affects another event when in actuality an intermediate effect is the cause.
For example: Event A (Higher Fuel Surcharge) → Event B (Higher Electricity Bill). We falsely assume that it is solely due to the increased use of expensive fuel by BPL, which is passed onto a customer, that directly leads to a 70% increase in our electricity bills.
However, i.e. Event C (kwh usage = the intermediate factor) → Event A (higher fuel surcharge) → Event B (higher electricity bill). The only way to make a direct comparison that electricity bills will go up by 70% is if kwh usage remained the same compared to the last billing period and fuel surcharge rates increased by 70%, therefore, we can directly (and correctly) identify this as the main factor for the increase in our bills.
Otherwise, an assumption based without the above data is inaccurate.
2. When exactly is Dr. Donovan directly quoted saying BPL bills will increase by 70%? Does Dr. Donovan’s % bill increase = your bill’s % increase for November?
A direct quote from the CEO provides anecdotal information about his own electricity bill, which has supposedly gone up by 60%. Did Dr. Donovan’s kWh usage increase or decrease in the past month? We don’t know, we just know it was the highest he has reportedly ever have.
The use of the 60% or 70% statistic, in this case, is an overgeneralization – a statistical fallacy, when a particular statistic from one group is used to be applied to the whole population.
Dr. Donovan’s experience is his own experience, and unless we can understand both the fuel surcharge value for the month of October and obtain a representative sampling of Bahamian electricity bills for the month of November, it is not accurate to assume that everyone’s bills will increase by the same rate.
I reiterate, regardless of the reasons for the increase of electricity bills in The Bahamas, the rates remain too high and pose a significant challenge to the growth, health, and development of our country.
I am proud to see Bahamians embracing digital media and online petitions to try and generate positive dialogue and social change in our country, expanding our role in the civic discourse and governance in our nation.
The media, technocrats, and politicians have important roles to play in how they communicate statistics to the public, as well as in understanding how it will be interpreted by the common man.
On a final note, the public must continue to challenge each other, especially when you see a statistic being quoted or shared. Take a few moments to consider if the statistic is being used as an overgeneralization or false causality for an event happening in your community.