Wednesday, 28 January 2009

More opinion to tax us on

I read today of the latest British Social Attitudes survey and wondered what possible use such a survey can be. As I understand it the survey is a massive opinion poll in which people are asked their views on a range of issues. I have no reason to doubt that the company undertaking the survey tries to be as objective as possible in its questioning, but there seem to me to be fundamental flaws in seeking to draw firm conclusions from the results of any opinion poll. Not only is it bound to include the views of people who have never thought about the subject on which they are asked to express an opinion but, perhaps more importantly, the questions can never avoid ambiguity or incompleteness.

Two of the reported conclusions struck me as particularly interesting, one on the NHS and one on the cost of aeroplane travel.

It is said that 51% of people are either very satisfied or quite satisfied with the National Health Service compared to 30% who are dissatisfied. What does it mean to say you are "very satisfied", "quite satisfied" or "dissatisfied" and how, I wonder, can one be expected to hold a single view about the NHS when it has so many facets? No doubt the full report helps to explain my concerns (I am not going to pay for a copy in order to find out) but I doubt it answers them entirely. My own views on the NHS cannot be expressed as a single opinion. I have a high opinion of the knowledge and skill of both my GP and my cardiac consultant, I was looked after very well following a heart attack and was particularly impressed by how the ward sister organised her troops. But the ward was not very clean and the food was a disgrace. On the basis of the treatment given to me I would be somewhere between quite satisfied and very satisfied. However, I am appalled at the extent to which so much of the NHS's budget is wasted on pointless administration and trying to keep the government supplied with politically helpful statistics. As an overall provider of value for money in health care I am very dissatisfied. So what should my overall opinion be? How should I balance the very good bits against the shockingly offensive bits? And how do other people do it?

Does a 51% satisfaction mark mean only 51% are satisfied with the care they receive? If so there is something very wrong with the service being provided. On the face of it, it must include an element of dissatisfaction with the cost and/or the bureaucratic structure and/or the political interference and/or some other non-care related factors. And the element that relates to satisfaction with care means nothing unless one knows what standard people expect to receive. Are expectations unreasonably high or are they practically attainable? In the former, a satisfaction rating of 51% might be very impressive. Without being able to these things against a standard, the conclusion that 51% are satisfied doesn't really seem to tell us anything.

The other area of interest to me shows that 49% believe air fares should reflect the environmental damage done by aeroplanes and a staggering 40% believe people should be allowed to travel by air as much as they want. The first of these figures is as meaningless as the NHS satisfaction statistic. Does it mean there should simply be a financial punishment for polluting the air and/or creating noise and/or exuding carbon dioxide? If so, which? And how many would agree to it if the money were then spent on political consultants for the government rather than, say, planting trees in Patagonia or providing vegan ready-meals for polar bears? Is it just a bandwagon figure reflecting successful brainwashing by the greenies?

As for the second figure, even a drink-enfeebled mind like mine boggles. Is there really support among 40% the population for the limitless availability of flights to anywhere in the world regardless of how economic that is? Is there really that level of support for a limitless number of airports and runways? The question must have been interpreted as having something other than its literal meaning. If that is so, it is likely to have been interpreted in different ways by different people which would suggest that the answers are of no practical use to anyone.

There is a wider point about this sort of survey. It is, in my view, absurd to expect respondents to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The margin for error must be enormous. None of this is a criticism of the company carrying out the survey and producing the report. They offer a product and sell it to those who might think it useful. I hope that doesn't include any element of central or local government. Sadly, something tells me the opposite is likely to be the case and that various aspects of this report will be cited by the government in the coming year as a justification for increasing tax.


Idle Pen Pusher said...

"Is there really support among 40% the population for the limitless availability of flights to anywhere in the world regardless of how economic that is?"

I took a completely different reading of this statistic, based on a different assumption. I assumed the question asked implied that financial costs of flying were given. Ie, they are asking if there should be any restriction over and above the internal (to the company and the flyer) financial costs of flying.

Therefore, 60% believe, in my understanding, that there should be a clamp down of some sort on flyers travelling for business. Potentially scary!

TheFatBigot said...

Very fair point Mr Pusher. I didn't read it that way but on reflection I think your interpretation is more likely to be correct than mine.

Who, I wonder, is going to to the rationing and using what criteria? Whoever it is, we can be sure they won't be rationing themselves.