Sunday, October 31, 2010

What babies think

The Express has finally lost the plot. Its idiotic CRUSADE FOR CHANGE campaign to stop the clocks going back has been well covered by Atomic Spin and Tabloid Watch, doubtless among others, but I wanted to focus on one particular aspect of the coverage - namely, the brazen misuse of mathematics.

"29 MILLION SUPPORT" screams the headline. What a lot of people. This Crusade certainly has captured the  public's eye - a number of people many, many times higher than the Daily Express readership supports it. But of course, that's not actually the true number of people who responded positively to the poll. No, what they've done is take the 'yes' percentage - 58% - and multiply it by 50,000,000 - roughly the population of England.

Why England? Well, the Scottish Express isn't so enamoured with the campaign. And Welsh people don't count. Regardless of this, is it reasonable to assume that support for the Crusade really runs at 29 million people?

No, of course not. Here's a few reasons why:

  • The article itself admits that 58% of respondents said the government should 'look at the system', which falls some way short of the unequivocal support hinted at in the headline.
  • The survey was of Daily Express readers. In general, if the Daily Express runs a poll asking readers 'would you like a large man to stamp on your testicles until you vomit?' then the 'yes' vote would be in the upper 80s at least, provided it was linked in with an article headlined NOW SPONGING EU MIGRANT BRIGADE SAY NO TO BRITISH BOLLOCK STAMPING. In context, a meagre 58% is something of a snub.
  • You simply cannot extrapolate a poll about political opinions to the whole population like that. Look at that picture, for example. What do you see? That's right - babies. Babies don't care about politics. They don't care about immigration, the NHS or the deficit. Things might affect them, but they don't care about the issues as long as the milk keeps flowing. They certainly don't care about the clocks going back. (Well, the one on the left might, because he lives in Scotland, but he doesn't count.) And yet the Express included them in its data, because they multiplied 58% by the WHOLE population of England, not just the non-baby population*. The fallacy involved here becomes more obvious when the next Express poll comes back with a 97% 'yes' result - such a figure would account for everyone in England over the age of nine.
I simply do not buy the idea that this mathematical incompetence was an honest mistake. When they get a 90%+ poll result, they don't multiply that by 50 million because the answer would look ridiculous. Just because the 29 million figure isn't actually impossible, doesn't mean that the methods used to obtain it weren't a complete crock of shit.

Add this to the usual cherry-picking of data, bold assertions and the odd truly mystifying claim (including that 'a third of us will oversleep' when the clocks go back - think about it), this whole campaign is a masterclass in pointless newspaper rubbish.

* 2009 figures here. If you're anything like me, that's you done for the day.

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