A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Britain’s happiest places mapped – complaining makes it worse!

Posted by apgaylard on November 11, 2008

bigstockphoto_dice_in_black_22983611The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) has just let me know that their adjudication on the “Britain’s happiest places mapped” debacle (previously covered here and here) has been published on the BBC Complaints website.  As ever, these tend to be less detailed than the private responses given to complainants; but they provide a useful public record.  Ultimately they get distilled further into a summary document, so the link won’t be live indefinitely.

So, has the article actually changed as a result of this complaint?  Yes, but some of the changes actually make it worse:  The original tip-off phrase, “… the researchers stress that the variations between different places in Britain are not statistically significant” has gone!

Instead the article contains the quite misleading:

“But when factors such as employment, health and educational qualifications were taken into account, there were not huge differences between areas, suggesting that it is these criteria, rather than geography, that are significant.” [Emphasis mine]

There is no mention of a lack of statistical significance in the varying levels of happiness between places.  If the word, “significant” is used here in a statistical sense, a new misconception has been introduced – whilst small differences may not be practically meaningful, it is quite possible for them to be statistically significant.

To me this new article seems even more misleading, but I could be wrong.  And there is some good news: a health warning has been appended to the bottom of the article.

Amendment 10 November 2008: This story has been changed to emphasise that the research did not suggest that geographical location was a significant factor in determining happiness.

If that is the case, then I don’t think that they have done a very good job.  Putting aside the qualms I have already raised the piece is still called, “Britain’s happiest places mapped” after all.  No matter who is responsible for the title – it conveys a particular message.

The opening paragraphs still say, in part:

“The most sparsely populated county in Wales is where you will find Britain’s happiest place, hints research.

Powys tops the list of 273 districts, with Edinburgh apparently the most miserable place in Britain.” [Emphasis mine]

This makes a point of happiness being associated with location; yet the research actually found no statistically significant differences between places.

The article also says, just after the, “not huge differences between areas” caveat that:

“The team found that the area of Brecknock, Montgomery and Radnor in Powys was the happiest place.

Manchester came second, followed by West Lothian. Macclesfield, Nottingham and Falkirk were all in the top 10.

The London borough of Sutton was one of the few places in the south of England to do well.

Edinburgh, despite its cosmopolitan reputation and internationally acclaimed fringe festival, was bottom of the list. Swansea and Doncaster also did poorly.” [Emphasis mine]

 Towards the end of the article the researcher, Dr Dimitris Ballas, is quoted:

“To what extent we can talk about happy people or happy places? Is it the place or the people? My guess would be it’s a bit of both.

“The variance that is attributed to the place you live in is perhaps higher than our research suggests, your immediate surroundings are very important in terms of happiness.” [Emphasis mine]

He is, of course, entitled to his views.  Perhaps he is right.  However, unless he is holding on to some unpublished results: his data don’t support his hunches.  Perhaps, ultimately it will; however the quotes don’t make him seem to be very objective.  More importantly, it just adds to the impression that the piece clearly gives – research has shown happiness to be associated with places –when it did not.

Does the article emphasise, “that the research did not suggest that geographical location was a significant factor in determining happiness”?  I don’t think so.  Now, I know that some people feel that journalistic output shouldn’t be withdrawn from the public domain once published.  However, if this is the best the BBC can do to salvage something accurate from the wreckage perhaps this article is beyond rescue.  I would be delighted to be proven wrong.

At this point I’m not really sure what to make of the BBC’s efforts.  The ECU has rightly (not just because it agreed with me!) judged that this piece was not accurate and asked for it to be changed.  However the changes seem to have been made either without a clear understanding of what was wrong, or to pay lip-service to the adjudication.  Either way it’s not very satisfactory.


5 Responses to “Britain’s happiest places mapped – complaining makes it worse!”

  1. draust said

    *thud* *thud* *thud*

    (sounds of Dr Aust hitting forehead repeatedly with heel of hand while making Homer Simpson “doh!” noise).

    Er… “you couldn’t make it up” …? (except when you’re the BBC and you do)

    Why they didn’t simply delete it escapes me completely.

  2. gimpy said

    However the changes seem to have been made either without a clear understanding of what was wrong, or to pay lip-service to the adjudication.

    My money is on the former.

    Thanks for keeping an eye on this.

  3. jdc325 said

    Gentlemen – set your faces to stunned. I can’t believe that, having made such a hash of the original report, the BBC has now exacerbated the situation. Oh wait, yes I can.

  4. teek said

    [headdesk] having followed your admirable efforts at getting the BBC to stop misleading their readers, and having been reasonably impressed by their e-mail to you acknowledging that the differences between places were non-significant, i am astonished at this half-arsed attempt at backtracking.

    not only does it appear that the Beeb is mathematically illiterate, they can’t even be bothered to follow up a complaint properly. i hope you will write to OFCOM to let them know that this adjustment to the article is not good enough.


  5. apgaylard said

    Thanks all for the comments. I had to read the revised piece three times to make sure that I wasn’t going insane. Dr Aust asks, “Why they didn’t simply delete it escapes me completely” and I must admit a certain sympathy with this view. Though others have different opinions: Francis Sedgemore thinks I, “went over the top” in asking for this piece to be pulled. (Though I’m not sure that I actually went quite that far – I certainly didn’t ask the BBC to do that.) My take is that there seems to be a bit of journalistic preciousness at work here: once a piece is published then it’s some how sacrosanct. Maybe it’s the “two cultures” thing at work – journalists viewing the output as art and then not liking it being reviewed and amended if necessary? I’d be happy with a competent re-write.

    Following up on Teek‘s comment, I think that part of the problem is that the ECU can’t dictate how or what changes are made. This appears to be down to a negotiation with the journalist – and negotiations practically always entail a degree of compromise.

    Also the ECU rae taking the view that they, “… don’t see any objection to describing places with higher or lower proportions of happy people in them as happier or unhappier places, so long as the impression that the research identified place as a causal factor in relative happiness is avoided.”

    I still recon that the piece fails to make that fine distinction, particularly when it ranks places: this invites the interpretation that the relationship is causal – like a School League Table.

    Anyway, I have asked the ECU to take another pass at it; and I’m still pushing for the video of the Hay-on-Wye piece to be removed.

    Thanks all for the encouragement and a bit of reassurance that I’m not completely mad.

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