Tuesday, April 12, 2011

‘Un-scientific’: am I being cynical?

Magazine news shows like the BBC’s Breakfast have always relied on haranguing people in the street to demand wildly opposing opinions, apparently for no better reason than to fill dead air.  Recently, some of these shows have been qualifying these segments by calling them ‘very unscientific’.  They’ll introduce the topic then say “now we join our reporter for a very unscientific survey”

On the face of it, this seems like quite a good thing.  A handful of people’s opinions doesn’t tell us anything of significance, especially if they are chosen for entertainment value, to show extremes of opinion or for the sake of some misguided notion of ‘balance’.

But there’s something not quite right here.  The audience doesn’t really know the difference between a ‘scientific’ and an ‘unscientific’ survey.  It understands that the cherry-picked quotes from random people are exactly that.  I’ve never noticed the slightest implication by mainstream TV news that such polls had any value above human interest and I don’t know anyone who takes them seriously.

So why point out that the polls are unscientific?  It has all the hallmarks of a BBC guideline that doesn’t really make much sense.  In my more cynical moments I wonder whether it might even be a ploy: by describing a poll as ‘unscientific’, news agencies might paradoxically associate the poll with science in the audience’s minds.  By being modest about their claims, might they add some spurious legitimacy to the poll that might not otherwise exist?  Or perhaps it might foster a them-and-us attitude: those fancy-nancy scientists might cock their snoots at this, but it’s what We The People think.  It reminds me of Brass Eye’s “there’s no real evidence for it, but it is scientific fact.” 

Perhaps I’m being cynical and the BBC is actually trying to be honest and helpful, but I doubt labelling a poll as unscientific will achieve that.  It might be better to say that the poll doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the nation or that the quotes have been chosen to illustrate extremes.

Better still, of course, they could just stop asking random people’s opinions about things they don’t really understand.  If the poll is unscientific, why conduct it in the first place?

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