Lies, damn lies and statistics (and how they make you feel)

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by Peter Clark

While conducting some research for a project I stopped 50 people in the centre of Dundee to ask them to give their opinions on the city.  Over the course of the day an interesting split started to emerge in the answers given – Scottish respondents, and those from Dundee in particular, gave overwhelmingly negative views about their home city, while those who had moved to the city from outside Scotland had generally positive things to say.

Due to the limited sample size it was difficult to analyse further, but there did also seem to be an age split, with older respondents more likely to be negative in their answers.  Interestingly the only reoccurring negative that the ‘newcomers’ mentioned was the negative attitude of Dundonians themselves to Dundee.

This made me think.  Earlier in the year I had written a piece for Newsnet, ‘Why So Sad?’ which examined the role the media play in helping society to form opinions about itself.  The piece examined how easy it is to pick and choose statistics to tell whatever story you like, and how more often than not mainstream Scottish media sources tend to focus on the negative.

I argued that it would be just as possible to paint a positive view of Scotland with the statistics available.  Perhaps the ‘newcomers’, with no long term exposure to the mainstream media in Scotland were basing their responses on their own experiences of Dundee and on what they have seen since living here, while lifetime Dundonians views reflected years of negative media influence?

Certainly, despite the fact it is often not reported, it is actually quite easy to find good news about Scotland.  Yes, even Dundee.  Below I have written a few unashamedly positive paragraphs, based on statistics, which have appeared in international publications, and yet most of which are unlikely to ever appear on Reporting Scotland or grace the pages of our own national press:

According to Scottish Development International Scotland has the highest educational attainment of any part of the UK, a view backed up by statistics from the UK wide Halifax Quality of Life survey (which also showed that some Scottish councils have the lowest burglary rates in the UK and are the least congested).

The YouGov PlaceIndex, which rates cities across the UK on 11 factors, including friendliness, variety of shops and restaurants, cultural offerings and personal safety, found Edinburgh to be the UK’s most desirable city with Glasgow and Inverness also getting in on the act for their cultural experiences and friendliness.  Edinburgh has also been voted ‘favourite UK city’ by the internationally published Conde Nest Traveller Magazine.

The University of Dundee is rated the best scientific institute in Europe for scientists to work in, and in 2007, 2008 and 2010 Dundee was named as one of the seven most intelligent communities in the world by the US based Intelligent Communities Forum with a high number of ‘knowledge’ workers in bio-technology, crop research, computer games design, graphics design and medical research.

Aberdeen has been praised in numerous surveys for its high levels of employment and abundance of skilled workers.  Finally the International Education Site, who advise students on international study options, mentions that ‘survey after survey confirms

Scotland as having one of the highest quality of life in Europe’.

Is that the view we have of ourselves?  Does BBC Scotland’s the Scheme reflect these statistics, pulling in as it does great viewing figures and informing vast swathes of the Scottish, not to mention UK, population about life in a Scottish housing estate.  Indeed are there any TV programmes or newspaper publications which reflect these statistics?

However before I get caught up again in just how misrepresentative the media is of Scottish affairs, I have to pour some cold water on the argument.  Yes, the media don’t report the full story, yes Scotland is poorly served by its media outlets, but more often than not statistics are completely meaningless in most people’s lives.  The ‘newcomers’ to Dundee didn’t base their opinions on statistics, they were based on their own experiences, which just happened to not include a lifetime of exposure to the Scottish media.  Likewise the Dundonians who had lived in the city all their lives based their responses on their own experiences, which just so happen to include a lifetime of exposure to the Scottish media.

We do ourselves, and the ‘new Scotland’ often talked about since the SNP’s stunning election result, a disservice if we get sucked into the mainstream media’s game.  Arguing over a few percentage points here and there, endlessly debating the statistical findings of one survey or another, will ultimately just distract and bore the general public.  For every set of statistics there is always a counter set.  Produce both and the water is muddied, the public switch off and stop paying attention.

This is a well known tactic in industries like the tobacco industry.  Someone has published a report with bad news for the tobacco companies, so how do they respond? Not by denying it, but by publishing contrasting figures.  Muddy the waters. Create confusion and the public will stop paying attention – simple as that.

I would not be surprised at all to see it as a tactic employed by the Unionist parties during the referendum debate, a raft of contrasting figures will be published in an attempt to confuse the electorate – and in order for Scotland to take the next step towards full accountability, full sovereignty, and full belief in itself, we must be wary of getting sucked into that trap.

We have to be grown up enough to say that yes, Scotland has both the good and bad, but not dwell on it.  It is not the statistics that will win the argument, but rather the vision of what we want Scotland to become.  Accept Scotland for all that it is, now, but inspire the public for what it could become.

Do not accept the negative view of Scotland, present the alternative, positive view, but neither get dragged into long winded debates about a few percentage points here and there.  If one news channel is saying one thing, the newspapers are saying another, while the radio happily broadcasts yet another view then the public will switch off, they will disengage.  After all why listen when no one has a coherent argument?

That then is our next challenge.  Create a coherent argument, speak with one voice, accept where Scotland currently stands and inspire people for where it could yet go.