FEATURE1 March 2010

Diary: Polls, Peter and Pluto

A look back over stuff that caught our eye in the world of research this month.

It doesn’t add up

Stinkyjournalism.org has announced its second annual Top Ten Dubious Polling Awards recognising achievement incategories including ‘Wishful thinking’, ‘Fox in sheep’s clothing’ and ‘Stonewalling/cover-up’. Diary’s personal favourite is Fox News, which won the ‘Fuzzy math’ award for its “creative presentation of polling numbers, showing what 120% of the public was thinking – and this did not include an additional 15% who weren’t thinking! Who knew the public could be a third larger than itself?” Diary is not of the opinion that all polling is nonsense, but we are glad that someone is pointing out the worst bits and keeping everyone on their toes.

What the papers say

The Daily Telegraph is turning out to be the most frequent abuser of survey data in the British national press. Its appetite for cheap stories based on nonsense surveys sponsored by companies who want their names in the papers is apparently insatiable. The Telegraph’s latest scoop is that “A third of Britons think Peter Griffin from Family Guy is the leader of the BNP” – a story that even the tabloids shunned. It came from a ‘survey’ by a money-saving website that Diary declines to name on principle (in the Telegraph’s story the firm duly gets a mention and even a hyperlink). Not surprisingly, the stat about Peter Griffin comes from a multiple-choice question, and the other options were probably Donald Duck and Genghis Khan, or something.


At February’s ‘Fast Forward’ event, hosted by BrainJuicer, OTX and Communispace, Diary was keen to share highlights with the Twittersphere. But what’s the etiquette? Is it wrong to be on one’s iPhone during a presentation? Even if you’re sharing the good bits with 3,000 followers? It was a very hands-on event – at one point we were all required to find a partner, link arms and jump up and down, to illustrate some point about how we’re all social animals. Within minutes, photos of the jumping were up on Twitter – posted by one of the speakers, no less. After that violation of everyone’s privacy, Diary felt much less ashamed of tweeting.

Reasons to be nervous

Diary attended a breakfast event last month hosted by Hall & Partners at The Ivy. The morning was billed as a discussion on the key forces shaping our lives in 2010 and beyond, which, it turns out, is a pretty scary topic. As we sat quietly trying not to let our spoons clink too loudly against our fruit salad bowls, a panel of speakers warned us of the dangers that lie ahead. The Economist’s Tom Standage kicked things off by saying that while the economic shock may be over, the recovery will be long and hard. “The best scenario,” he said, as the audience tucked into their cinnamon whirls, “is that we have years of horrible austerity”. The panel also included astrologist and psychic Rosa Derriviere, who explained that Uranus is about to move into Aries – but her authority on such matters was undermined when she had to be put right by Standage on the date Uranus was discovered (which, for the record is 1781, not 1930 ). “That was Pluto,” said Standage. “I wrote a book about it.”