Sunday, 21 June 2009

Some nifty statistical sleuthing here...

I've been suspending judgement on the Iranian election so far; some (few) reports have suggested it might have been a reasonable result.

Now we have this.

So what can we make of Iran's election results? We used the results released by the Ministry of the Interior and published on the web site of Press TV, a news channel funded by Iran's government. The ministry provided data for 29 provinces, and we examined the number of votes each of the four main candidates -- Ahmadinejad, Mousavi, Karroubi and Mohsen Rezai -- is reported to have received in each of the provinces -- a total of 116 numbers.

The numbers look suspicious. We find too many 7s and not enough 5s in the last digit. We expect each digit (0, 1, 2, and so on) to appear at the end of 10 percent of the vote counts. But in Iran's provincial results, the digit 7 appears 17 percent of the time, and only 4 percent of the results end in the number 5. Two such departures from the average -- a spike of 17 percent or more in one digit and a drop to 4 percent or less in another -- are extremely unlikely. Fewer than four in a hundred non-fraudulent elections would produce such numbers.
But that's not all. Psychologists have also found that humans have trouble generating non-adjacent digits (such as 64 or 17, as opposed to 23) as frequently as one would expect in a sequence of random numbers. To check for deviations of this type, we examined the pairs of last and second-to-last digits in Iran's vote counts. On average, if the results had not been manipulated, 70 percent of these pairs should consist of distinct, non-adjacent digits.

Not so in the data from Iran: Only 62 percent of the pairs contain non-adjacent digits. This may not sound so different from 70 percent, but the probability that a fair election would produce a difference this large is less than 4.2 percent. And while our first test -- variation in last-digit frequencies -- suggests that Rezai's vote counts are the most irregular, the lack of non-adjacent digits is most striking in the results reported for Ahmadinejad.

Each of these two tests provides strong evidence that the numbers released by Iran's Ministry of the Interior were manipulated. But taken together, they leave very little room for reasonable doubt. The probability that a fair election would produce both too few non-adjacent digits and the suspicious deviations in last-digit frequencies described earlier is less than .005. In other words, a bet that the numbers are clean is a one in two-hundred long shot.

That's easily enough evidence to justify a do-over under close outside observation. If Iran was a working democracy. I have to conclude that it isn't, that the Revolution failed, and the kids in the streets are right to fight.

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