Wednesday 19 February 2014

Asking frivolous questions

Politicians tend to like opinion polls which give them the ‘right’ answer, and disregard those which give them the ‘wrong’ answer, usually with some vague statement about there being ‘only one poll that counts’.  Psephologists and commentators like them because they can provide some sort of information about the overall trends and direction of public opinion.  And journalists like them, because they can write stories about them and fill up all that empty space in their newspapers without too much effort (or in the case of broadcasters, fill a ‘current affairs’ slot when there isn’t much else to report).
But that last point about space-filling is not without its problems.  It seems to be leading to ever more frequent and esoteric questions being asked, all of which provide some nice statistics which can be put into tables and graphs (often with a degree of false precision which would have enraged my maths teachers – sometimes, they're accurate to the nearest .25 of a person, apparently).  The problem is that the more surveys that are conducted, the more they have to try and find different questions to ask; and the more questions they ask, the sillier some of them get.  One of the things that contributes to the silliness and pointlessness of them is giving people false choices and asking them to choose between them as though that is the way in which policy choices are made in practice.
We’ve had two classic examples in the last week.
The first was the finding that, given a direct choice between spending money on foreign aid and spending it on flood relief within the UK, the majority would opt to spend it ‘at home’.  I’m sure that they would, but it isn’t a real choice in practice.  It’s suggestive of an approach to public spending which, if carried far enough, could eliminate an awful lot of spending, as each subject area goes head to head with another, with only one surviving each round.  (I have a horrible feeling there that I might just have come up with an idea for some sort of reality decision-making show…)
The second was the one which said that ‘well over half’ of Welsh people would cut spending on the Welsh language (without, of course, defining what that actually means) when asked to pick three random areas from a list of nine.  I’m not sure that it adds much to the sum total of human knowledge though.  They don’t appear to have been given the choice to cut spending on the English language, yet most of what people think of as spending ‘on Welsh’ can actually be viewed in a different way.  Using two languages can be more expensive that using only one, for sure – but there are more ways than one of responding to that.
There are serious opinion polls which ask people’s opinions on major issues; and there are frivolous ones which are just for fun.  The boundaries between the two aren’t looking as clear cut as they used to.


Anonymous said...

Your comments are absolutely right John, but I think this item on Y Byd ar Bedwar deserves a more robust challenge.

It's the kind of headline which will now be used by Labour councilors and others to cut funding for any Welsh budget and also against opening new WM schools.

I think the questinaire also borders on racism. For no particular reason, and with no context of the spend on Welsh (0.15% of Welsh Gov budget spent on 'Welsh' - 5 times less than given to Keep Wales Tidy for instance) people were asked to chose between huge budgets such as Health and irrelevant sums (in budget terms) such as Welsh as if they were compatable spending budgets.

Would S4C air a programme which, rather than Welsh, included 'Muslim Activities'? No.

There is an issue about budgets priotities, there's issues about spend on the Welsh language, but this programme was not a documentary progamme and S4C should reconsider the editorial and journalistic integrity of the producers of the programme.

Anonymous said...

The comment from anon above is absolutely spot on. The makers of the programme and S4C should hang their heads in shame.