This is slightly off topic for me, because it isn’t really about social science and its misuses, but a more simple issue of translation. Because people in different places/cultures, and even different people in the same ‘place’ see the world in different ways, use different systems and language, you have to be careful to dig behind the meanings. Today’s Observer has a feature on Sarkozettes, who look remarkably like Blair’s Babes all those years ago. At least it’s not just about Carla Bruni today! Anyway, under a photo of Rama Yade it said ’31-year old Rama Yade was working as an administrator when Sarkozy promoted her to minister of foreign affairs’. Now, I’m not knocking her achievement, and 31 is very young to get a job like this, but the Observer’s language makes it sound almost unbelievable (particularly the UK’s got a really young foreign secretary in his early 40s) and I was also surprised I hadn’t heard of her. Of course, the journalist’s turn of phrase leads us to think of the minister of foreign affairs, who is actually the Bernard Kouchne, who’s 68 and not so young. More importantly, the word ‘administrator’ has very different connotations either side of the channel. Here it usually means someone carrying out tasks in an office on behalf of someone else, and often with little pay or responsibility. ‘Admin’ staff are often in the lowest ranks of an organisation, and usually undervalued and overworked. In France an administrator is a senior member of the civil service, as seen in the name of the Ecole nationale d’administration, which is their equivalent to our National School of Government. I don’t know if Rama Yade had time there while working as a civil servant, but she’s went to Sciences Po, which educates the French political elite, and was doing a high-flying job in government. This reminded me of two issues. First, the way comparing different places, cultures or whatever is fraught with translation problems. There was a story about French and British national identity (arguing that French national identity is stronger for immigrants to France), while forgetting that in Britain we’ve got England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so if some people choose these the statistics are skewed. Second, it reminded me how sloppy journalism can be. I know next to nothing about French politics and imagine the author probably knows more than me, but she left ‘government administrator’ unexplained so that whoever did the photo caption, who probably knows less than me, just took it as written. Just as a statistic or social theory gets garbled by being passed from a researcher to a non-expert journalist to the public, a simple fact gets mistranslated because of a lack of expertise and a lack of care.
Monthly Archives: March 2008
A few weeks ago I received a bit of junk mail from RIAS that’s led me to the most amusing use of statistics I’ve ever seen.
I wouldn’t normally read this kind of mail, especially as I’m neither over 50, nor in the market for some new insurance, but the letter began along the lines of ‘I know that getting letters like this is annoying’. I threw it away, thinking ‘damn right’, but then got it back out of the bin in disbelief that they’d start like this… the pitch worked.
Anyway, to the numbers. When an insurance company says ‘You could save up to £182’ or whatever, it’s worth examining the small print, because the important word here is ‘could’. In their favour, this is of course a one-way bet: if you ring up and they give you a higher quote, you’ll stick with what you’ve got. When the Halifax say in a current ad, ‘you could save £99’, this is the average savings of a ‘random sample of 715 customers… by switching’. Obviously this doesn’t include those who don’t switch who might be saving a hundred quid by staying put. But at least it’s an average saving, that makes sense to the general public.
For others, it’s a different figure altogether, and one that made me choke on my cornflakes. Hastings and RIAS give figures that ‘10% of customers achieved’ were ‘achieved in 10% of quotes’. This means 90% of people (i.e. most of them) didn’t get this saving, and we don’t even know if these figures only include people who switched. Yes, they do say ‘look, this what you could get up to’, but as a headline figure it makes you think that’s your approximate gain. We’ve no idea of the distribution: maybe 10% save £150 and the other 90% save nothing.
I guess this is what those recruitment ads do when they say ‘earnings up to £70k’ when in reality very few get anywhere near that. Maybe I’ll start to measure things like this. I could offer to do ‘up to 2 hours of housework each weekday’, knowing I’ll do next to nothing except a couple of hours every fortnight.