Ever since the Trindad and Tobago Election and Boundaries Commission (EBC) released its figures on the number of registered voters prior to the September 2015 general election, I have noticed that lots of people have been questioning the country’s official population figures. With over one million people registered to vote, people have expressed the firm opinion that the total population must be significantly more than the 1.3 million people recorded by the Central Statistical Office (CSO). There have been letters on the subject published in the daily papers and I have seen the topic popup in my social media feed, initiated by well-educated and knowledgeable people. I have read and heard people speculating that the real population figure must be well over 1.5 million and even as high as 2 million. 

I find this curious. The official population figures published from the last national census conducted in 2011 correspond reasonably closely with the EBC data on voters. According to the 2011 national census there were 997,919 people in Trindad and Tobago over the age of 18, while the EBC reported a total of 1,040,128 people registered to vote in 2010 – a difference of just 4%. 

I think that there are two reasons why people mistrust the total population figures. One is an entirely understandable lack of confidence in the CSO. There are numerous news stories expressing concern about the economic data reported by the CSO, with concern being expressed by international bodies such as the IMF. The Energy Chamber has directly taken up the issue of the constant restatement of energy sector gross domestic product figures with the government and urged that greater attention be paid to recording and disseminating accurate data. I would point out, however, that population is a lot easier to measure than GDP and we should not dismiss all CSO data because of the problems with the data on the economy. 

THERE is a second reason people do not trust the data. This is because of the assumptions that they have about the structure of the Trindad and Tobago population. I have noticed that many people still think of Trindad and Tobago as a 'youthful' country, so if there are over a million people on the voter list then the total population must be well over 1.3 million, as there must be more than three hundred thousand young people. This assumption, which may have been true when some of the commentators were in school 30 or 40 years ago, is simply no longer true. The average age in Trindad and Tobago has risen from 21.6 years in 1980 years to 32.6 in 2011. We are no longer a young nation and in fact we are facing major problems with an aging population, and the attendant problems that creates for pensions and health care. 

But people have not yet taken on board this reality and therefore, when confronted with what they perceive to be a mismatch between the data on total population and the voters list, they chose to dismiss the CSO data and go with their gut feelings. 

This is not something that is unique to Trinidad and Tobago. The fascinating work of Hans Rosling, the noted Swedish public health expert and master communicator, clearly shows up people’s common misconceptions about the world, and how these misconceptions can lead to bad public policy. 

Too often when it comes to policy-making in Trinidad and Tobago we do not start with the data, but rather start from our commonly held assumptions. This tendency can be especially dangerous in the energy sector which changes very quickly and unpredictably (for example the rise of US shale gas and then oil), but also has very long planning horizons, so bad policy choices may not show up right away. If we are making public policy for the energy sector based on analysis we conducted ten years ago, we may be making some big mistakes. 

It is crucial that we build the capacity to make policy based on data, rather than assumptions and gut-feelings. Our assumptions may well have been formed in a past era and using them to make policy may mean we end up getting our policy making wrong in a new environment, with disastrous consequences for our economy.