O tempora

There are people outside this country who still suppose “the Times”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk is a serious paper. For their benefit — and just because it’s fun — here’s something I wrote for the CT this afternoon.

The national census data on religion came out two months ago, when the _Guardian_ gave it “a big spread.”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1324962,00.html Jonathan Petre couldn’t then get a story into the _Telegraph_ but squeezed [“a Sunday for Monday”:http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/12/13/nfaith13.xml] out of it on December 13th. The next day the _Times_ gave the job to someone called Stephanie Marsh. “She wrote”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,2737-1402852,00.htm that %(loony)“There are fewer Roman Catholics living in the North East than anywhere else, at just 0.03 per cent of the population. The South East has the highest percentage of Roman Catholics, at 0.4 per cent of the population.”%

It’s true this is exactly what the Census spreadsheet says. In fact, it makes some even more sensational claims: that there are, in all the North East of England, only 951 Roman Catholics and seven Anglicans; there are only 577 Anglicans in London. Obviously, Ms Marsh didn’t realise that “Anglican” means Church of England, or she’d have had an even better story. According to these official government figures, there are %(loony)more Satanists (1,525)% than %(loony)Anglicans (1,134)% in England and Wales. Why spoil such a wonderful story by reading the question on the census form?

This asked people to declare if they were “Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)”. 37,046,500 people did so. Of these, at a reasonable guess, five million are Roman Catholic. What the figures in the _Times_ story show is size of the minority of Christians who, like Ms Marsh, found the census question difficult to understand.

Any reporter can make a mistake: but subeditors are there to keep mistakes this ludicrous out of the paper. It wouldn’t happen on the _Mail._ That must be the elusive difference between a “compact” and a “tabloid”.

This entry was posted in God, Journalism. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to O tempora

  1. Here are the correct links for Ms Marsh’s “article”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,2737-1402852,00.html and the accompanying “graphic”:http://www.timesonline.co.uk/newspaper/0,,2737-1402745,00.html.

  2. acb says:

    fixed. Thanks. Memo to self: do not drag urls out of the history window without checking first.

  3. SRW says:

    As a journo with religious interests you see religious ignorance. As a mathmo I see statistical/numerical ignorance.

    Subjective interpretations rule!

    SRW

  4. acb says:

    But what’s the statistical ignorance displayed? Surely there is a simpler name for the inability to read the question on a form?

  5. SRW says:

    Anyone with some training in number-awareness (which, in theory, should be anyone with a Maths GCSE/O-level), would look at the small percentages quoted and instantly suspect that something odd is going on. The same would have applied to any possible survey answer. If I had to write an article about census responses in Outer Mongolia I’d be suspicious of the 0.03% reply.

    (Actually, it occurs to be the ONS is guilty here, too — they should surely have conflated the write-in answers with the multiple choices?)

    The graphs (all the Christian bars broken to fit on the page) are also fundamentally dishonest, and I challenge anyone to spot the difference between the Welsh, NE and London graphs on the website.

    She’s also made a horrible error in her percentages — one which journalists are all too prone to, and one which I’m glad to say that the Grauniad stamps on. Welsh disbelief is not (I suspect) 4 percent higher than any other region — that would be almost irrelevant (18% less four percent is about 17.3%). She probably means four percentage points.

    \end{Monday morning grump}

  6. SRW says:

    Anyone with some training in number-awareness (which, in theory, should be anyone with a Maths GCSE/O-level), would look at the small percentages quoted and instantly suspect that something odd is going on. The same would have applied to any possible survey answer. If I had to write an article about census responses in Outer Mongolia I’d be suspicious of the 0.03% reply.

    (Actually, it occurs to be the ONS is guilty here, too — they should surely have conflated the write-in answers with the multiple choices?)

    The graphs (all the Christian bars broken to fit on the page) are also fundamentally dishonest, and I challenge anyone to spot the difference between the Welsh, NE and London graphs on the website.

    She’s also made a horrible error in her percentages — one which journalists are all too prone to, and one which I’m glad to say that the Grauniad stamps on. Welsh disbelief is not (I suspect) 4 percent higher than any other region — that would be almost irrelevant (18% less four percent is about 17.3%). She probably means four percentage points.

    \end{Monday morning grump}

Comments are closed.