July 16, 2008 · 8:10 pm
This is the story that’s made me the most angry in recent months, but I missed writing about it because I was on holiday (better late than never). It’s the Observer story with the headline: most Britons doubt cause of climate change. It was based on a Ipsos Mori survey that can be found here and if you read the original data and the Observer analysis, you’ll discover how far from the data the news story is.
I sent a letter to the Observer, funnily enough not printed, pointing out that their claims weren’t backed up by the survey data:
…If 42% of people think climate change might not be as bad as people say, they might still think it’s bad or even very bad. The 60% of people that agree that ‘many scientific experts’ question the causes of climate change could believe that these scientists are wrong. Indeed, does ‘many’ mean 10 scientists, 10% of the scientific community or most scientists? Respondents don’t know what the question means…Your poll, and its subsequent analysis, is bad social science.
For the ‘fact’ that ‘Most Britons don’t believe climate change is man-made’ they asked the public to guess the state of play of the world scientific community, instead of asking them if they themselves thought humans were responsible.
As pointed out by those sceptical of climate change, the survey is used to show that the population don’t believe in climate change, and therefore more needs to be done to ram it down people’s throats (the sceptics arguing that it’s already rammed down our throats enough, but that it’s not true). But if you look at the data, and I don’t think many people have, you’ll find a story of most people (77%) being very or fairly concerned about climate change, most people thinking that something can and should be done, including most people saying invest in renewable energy. Just because people can’t be cast-iron certain how bad climate change will be, and how many scientists agree and disagree, doesn’t mean they believe it’s a hoax. Remember, even when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global warming is real, they still put out a range of scenarios (six in IPCC AR4) because scientists, individually and collectively can’t know exactly how it will pan out.
And finally when asked ‘what is reasonable to expect people to do to tackle climate change’, only 6% of Britons chose ‘There is no need to take any action – climate change is natural/humans are not having that much impact’. Not many sceptics there.
April 8, 2008 · 9:12 pm
‘They don’t come from the usual elitist white male cookie-cutter mould of French politicians. They have grassroots political experience rather than coming from the old boys’ club of grandes écoles [the elite universities that educate the bulk of France’s high-flyers]’
Vivienne Walt, the Paris correspondent for Time magazine quoted in the Guardian
After my last post I re-read the Observer article and found this quote I’d missed. Well I knew that Rama Yade was at Sciences-Po, so I thought I’d check how realistic this assessment was. Of the six female ministers mentioned in the article, five had been to the grandes ecoles, and the other is a doctor of pharmacy and an ex-MEP. One of them, Michele Alliot-Marie, was a lecturer in politics and law at the Sorbonne, and it doesn’t get much more grandes ecoles than that.
Interestingly, two of Sarkozy’s seven female cabinet ministers didn’t go to one of the grandes ecoles (Rama Yade isn’t a cabinet minister), and these were the ones not mentioned in the Observer piece. Christine Boutin probably doesn’t fit their story because she’s of the religious right and involved in the pro-life movement, and the other Christine Albanel, was a senior civil servant and worked for Chirac when he was PM and President, hardly grass-roots.
The analysis presented in the quote above is quite simply nonsense. Hold the front page, ‘government still populated by the posh and privileged’; even if one or two had humble beginnings.
March 30, 2008 · 10:42 pm
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.