Confirmation bias - John C. Kirk — LiveJournal
Apr. 30th, 2011
05:31 pm - Confirmation bias
Yesterday was the Royal Wedding: some of my friends were very enthusiastic about this, while others did their best to avoid it. That's fine, since everyone is entitled to their own view, and I don't want to get into a discussion about the relative merits of monarchy as an institution. However, I have noticed several misleading claims from the naysayers. These don't hold up to scrutiny, so I think this is an example of "confirmation bias": the tendency to take things at face value if you agree with them. It's best to avoid this trap, if only to preserve your own credibility, so I'm examining those claims here. I'm not advocating the monarchy, just using this opportunity to practise critical thinking. (One day I'd like to read through the books for the A level syllabus.)
(Just to clarify, each of the phrases in bold is paraphrased, not a direct quote, but I don't think I'm distorting anyone's views.)
"Most people don't care about the wedding."
According to thinq: "Less than half of the British public have expressed positive interest in the affair in recent polls and only a third of the UK adult population have said they'll be bothered to watch the cobblers play out on the telly."
Similarly, WeddingDates said: "This day in exactly 1 week, I will be GLUED to the telly watching the Royal Wedding along with 1 in 3 other Irish people according to a report today."
However, neither website cites a source, and I can't find anything online. Conversely, Reuters said that 56% of people were going to watch the wedding, and "53 percent professed interest in the royal couple's big day compared to 47 percent who had little or no interest in it." They give a bit more detail about how the survey was done: Ipsos MORI phoned 1,000 adults in a 3 day period, and weighted the data to match the profile of the population. I assume that means that they tweaked the numbers, e.g. if they spoke to more men than women then they scaled up the female vote.
Unless you have a referendum, it's always going to be difficult to get accurate data. For instance, I didn't vote in any of the newspaper polls, and phone/website polls are vulnerable to "ballot box stuffing" (where people can vote more than once). The same problem applies to ratings. Even if every Sky/Freeview box was configured to monitor which channel you watch, and send data back to base, it still wouldn't know how many people were in front of the TV. As an extreme example, there were thousands of people watching the big TV screens in Hyde Park!
"They're a bunch of scroungers."
Morrissey recently described the Royal family as benefit scroungers. Similarly, from Twitter: "Unemployed woman marries 3rd generation immigrant whose family live off the taxpayer #royalwedding"
If you look at paramedics who are employed by the London Ambulance Service (or any other NHS trust), they also "live off the taxpayer"; if they use this salary to support their family then you could say that the whole family lives off the taxpayer. However, I don't think many people would begrudge them this money. Also, Prince William works for the
Royal Navy RAF as a search and rescue pilot, so his salary is paid by our taxes. Does that make him a scrounger twice over?
The point is that the Royal family don't spend all their time lazing around in front of the TV. There's a list of their engagements in the Court Circular, and according to that the Queen has been busy on 58 days so far this year (1st Jan to 30th April), sometimes doing several activities on the same day. Considering that she's 85 years old, I think it's fair to say that she works for a living. People may disagree about whether the job needs doing, or whether the salary is excessive, but I don't think they're lazy. It might be better to compare them to highly paid footballers.
"It's costing us billions of pounds."
Again, I'll use thinq as an example here. Their headline is: "Royal Wedding will cost UK economy billions". However, it's important to look at the breakdown: "The biggest cost - a day off granted by His Haughiness David Cameltoe - is estimated by none other than the Confederation of British Industry to cost the UK economy about FIVE BILLION POUNDS."
Again, they don't cite a source for this. Doing some digging on the web, I found a CBI press release from August 2007: "Offering staff an extra bank holiday would cost the economy up to six billion pounds on top." The key point here is that this applies to any extra bank holiday; it isn't specifically related to the Royal Wedding. The Wall Street Journal also examined this claim, and quoted the CBI saying that: "The royal wedding is a day for national celebration, and under these unique circumstances a one-off additional bank holiday is appropriate".
I'm going to talk about the AV referendum in a separate post, but it's also relevant here. The "No to AV" group put out a leaflet and posters which say that switching to AV would cost £250 million. However, as this breakdown shows, that includes £91 million for the referendum itself, and that's a fixed cost even if we stick with FPTP. In other words, the £250 million is an inflated estimate. I find it interesting that some people who support AV (and passed around the link to that image) are using the same flawed logic to oppose the Royal Wedding.
I mentioned public enthusiasm for the wedding, and lots of people have been in favour of getting an extra bank holiday, e.g. for St George's Day or in October (since there's a long gap between August and Christmas). Peninsula did a survey in 2008, where 92% of the people polled were in favour of an extra bank holiday. (Source: HR review, Recruiter.) So, even if the actual wedding is unpopular, that implies that most people should still be happy with the day off.
This also relates to the previous point about the taxpayer footing the bill. I'm getting an extra day of annual leave, but the same salary, so my employer is paying the bill. I've spent most of my career working for small companies, so I do sympathise with the employers in a situation like this: they're paying the same amount of money in wages, but getting less work in return. Of course, if you feel guilty about taking money away from your employer then you could always go into the office anyway, or spend the day working from home, or ask your employer to treat the bank holiday as part of your annual leave for the year.
I also think that some companies have benefitted from the wedding. Looking at the shops near Hyde Park yesterday, some of them had queues that were spilling out onto the street, e.g. people buying loads of alcohol in Sainsbury's. Similarly, I know that a lot of people travelled into London for the wedding, so they paid for train tickets, petrol, or whatever.
Peter Tatchell (of OutRage!) wrote William and Kate: Who Cares?, with some rather bizarre claims.
For instance, regarding the Queen: "She has failed to visit or support LGBTI charities, despite her many charitable causes." I'm not sure how many charities there are in the UK, but you can get a rough idea by looking at their registration numbers (these typically appear at the bottom of their websites). The RSPCA is #219099, and ActionAid is #274467. I assume that these numbers are given out sequentially, although some older charities may no longer exist. So, being conservative, let's assume that there are 100,000 altogether. If you wanted to donate £1/month to each one, that would cost you £1.2 million/year, and I think that even the Queen would struggle with that kind of bill. Similarly, if you wanted to visit one charity a day, it would take 300 years to visit them all. In other words, it's not practical to visit or support every single charity. It's odd to say "despite", because that implies that it's bad to be selective; would Tatchell prefer it if the Queen didn't support any charities at all, to be even-handed? I don't see how anyone would benefit from that.
This is similar to the "gay rights" meme that I wrote about in Oct 2006. The implication is that "you're either with us or you're against us - there's no neutrality!" I reject that mindset.
Tatchell also says that: "William and Kate have gay friends but don’t publicly acknowledge them." I don't know whether that's true, but according to genderqueer and Shoutout William invited a transgender colleague to the wedding. That fits in with the T bit of LGBTI, so I don't think it's really fair to portray William as a bigot.