The irony of the press criticising Michael Gove's dodgy surveys

Most PR-commissioned surveys are bunk – but it's not just Michael Gove who cites them.

Education secretary Michael Gove was roundly – and correctly – ridiculed yesterday after it emerged his criticisms of shoolchildren’s English history knowledge was based on PR research carried out by Premier Inn and UKTV Gold.

While the irony of a man looking to improve educational standards in history being himself unable to spot a compromised source is one which hasn’t escaped the attention of commentators, oddly little spotlight has been shone on the source of the dodgy data itself. Ludicrous as it is that a senior politician in a position of power could be so embarrassingly unfamiliar with acceptable standards of research, it seems remiss not to question why marketing-led data ended up in a position to be taken seriously in the first place.

The reason no questions have been raised might conceivably be due to a degree of embarrassment, given that the primary conduit for PR puff-pieces is the mainstream media itself. Take the Telegraph, who pulled no punches in deconstructing Gove’s embarrassing error - despite themselves having recently published "research" from B&Q highlighting the annoyance of neighbours mowing their lawns in the morning.

Similarly, the BBC, who also ran an account of Gove’s cock-up, only last week published a press release from pen-manufacturers Bic declaring – in the run up to exam season, naturally – that students should rely less on their lucky underwear, and instead follow advice to revise diligently… and "pack a spare pen".

Perhaps most red-faced of all ought to be the Independent – who reported merely a week ago that we lazy Brits don’t do enough walking (from research commissioned by the Ramblers Association). The paper reported the hapless Education Secretary’s reliance on PR surveys... despite having themselves published one of the very PR surveys they criticise Gove for citing. Perhaps someone at the Independent needs to be reminded what they say about having your cake and eating it.

The Daily Mail, wisely, have yet to criticise Gove – smart, given that they previously published each of the PR surveys he cited, and especially considering that in the last week alone they’ve published more than twenty two articles derived from the same questionable opinion poll mould. While the error from the Education Secretary was cringeworthy and troubling, there’s a degree of hypocrisy in the news media criticising Gove for believing what they presumably, at the time, felt was worthwhile enough to print.

The ease with which PR surveys pass into the mainstream media – and into the eager hands of Education Secretaries, it seems – would be less concerning if the research they presented was of a high standard. Unfortunately, for the majority of such opinion polls, commercial interest and crippling methodological flaws often render the results worthless.

Take, for example, three of the surveys cited by Gove, whose original press releases can be easily located: all three polls were conducted by polling company OnePoll – a prolific operator in the online opinion poll industry. It was OnePoll who recently informed us that women hate their bodies more than ever (in a survey sponsored by a dieting company), that women can’t manage money as well as men (according to a cashback website) and that men should be less lazy when it comes to doing DIY (says an entirely-impartial DIY retailer). There’s no shortage of OnePoll surveys in the news each week, yet, on examination, serious questions can be raised over their gathering of data.

OnePoll claim to have a community of over 100,000 users, with users paid around ten pence for each survey completed - with surveys regularly consisting of over a dozen questions. As moneyspinners go, it’s hardly lucrative. What’s more, users can only collect their earnings after accruing £40 - equating to roughly three hundred surveys and potentially hundreds of hours.

This low return on investment becomes an incentive to undertake as many polls as possible – and with limits to the number of users able to complete each survey, users are soon tempted to spend no time at all thinking honestly about their answers. If only the first 2,000 people earn 10p for their ten minutes of work, why be the person who lingers too long and finds they’ve wasted their time for no reward? This, combined with the ease of second-guessing the "desired" answer to screening questions (why yes, I DO have children under the age of seven…), almost certainly results in some polls being completed by users with no relationship to the subject matter and no concern for the answers they provide.

The problems don’t stop there - as any psychology student will tell you, any answer you receive can depend entirely on the question you ask and the way you ask it. Take, for instance, a question posed by OnePoll to new mothers:

Do you find you don’t actually care as much about your appearance now that you have had a baby?

A) Yes absolutely

B) No, I care, I just don’t have the time to do anything about it

C) Neither

(OnePoll, 13 May 2013, survey NH SDG 3004 VBM)

Once you pick through the positives and negatives, it’s clear that both of the first two options presume new mothers don’t take care of their appearance. While this may or may not be true, it’s not a finding which the question solicits – yet it would be easy for a PR firm (perhaps acting on behalf of a cosmetics or clothing retailer) to spin an article just as well from either response.

Similarly, multiple-choice questions can often force users into making fairly clumsy sweeping generalisations - such as the question posed to male users earlier this year:

Please be brutally honest - whose cooking do you think is better, your mum’s or your wife’s/partner’s?

(OnePoll, 1 March 2013, survey title unknown)

 

Heaven help the men faced with that choice. Yet, with a shiny 10p on the line, and no other option available, a choice had to be made… and thus, as the Daily Mail declared a fortnight later, “Over half of British men think their mums are better cooks than their partners”. Somewhat lost in the write-up is that the men in question were forced into the choice, and only marginally more than half opted for the first option on the list.

The lack of transparency of survey method and availability of actual data in the final write-up is a further issue with PR polls, and brings us neatly back to those cited by Gove. Take the finding – highlighted as the very headline of both the original press release and the Daily Mail article – that Delia Smith was married to Henry VIII: nowhere is it reported how many of the 2,000 children to take the poll actually gave this as a response. It’s perfectly plausible – if not highly likely – that the main line of the news coverage of this story was generated by only a handful of respondents choosing this rather silly option. It’s equally likely, too, that the survey wasn’t of 2,000 11-16 year olds, but of 2,000 people who said they’d had their children present, some of which may not have been telling the truth. Those screening questions are, after all, not rocket science to figure out.

Most intriguing of all, then, is the possibility that the Education Secretary criticised the ignorance of children in this country based on number of newspaper reports of a minority of errant responses given to a PR opinion poll by people who weren’t children at all. Until there’s real transparency on the data, and better control over survey methodology, there’s no real way of knowing. This survey isn’t unique in that respect – there are dozens of similar cases featured in the news each week, often with significant potential flaws.

As for Michael Gove, he ought to be more cautious about believing what he reads in the newspapers, and should learn to be more skeptical of his sources. Those who don’t learn history are doomed to ignorantly repeat things.

Michael Marshall, Vice President of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, regularly writes and lectures on the role of PR in the tabloid news. He tweets as @MrMMarsh.

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.