One in five Australians has become a fashionable statistic. We see it on billboards, media releases and websites. This trend to use a “one in five statistic” indicates a bias towards trivialising social experiences.
According to Google, one in five Australians experience some form of mental illness, is affected by road traffic noise, has a disability, is employed in the export industries, does not hear properly, has had a sexually transmitted infection, has no home insurance, smokes daily, has no relationship with the people next door and has experienced a sexual relationship with a work colleague. However, without providing a social context, these national statistics are largely meaningless.
Let’s take the statistic that one in five Australian workers has had a sexual relationship with someone they work with. This statistic was reported in the media after a recruiting agency surveyed 1,000 people. In this survey, 200 people indicated that they had experienced a sexual relationship with a work colleague. This small sample was reported as representative of all Australian workers. But is it?
The question “Have you had a sexual relationship with a work colleague?” assumes people share an understanding of what constitutes a “sexual relationship”. What level of sexual activity is required to tick “Yes”? Is a grope at the Christmas party or a cuddle in the stationery cupboard sufficient? Or is orgasm mandatory?
To understand workplace relationships, it is important to differentiate between a range of sexual relationships. For example, those who have a lifelong committed relationship with someone they met at work and those who have had a one night stand with a colleague will have very different stories to tell. With statistical surveys, these differences become similarities when they both simply tick the “Yes” box.
By asking respondents to answer “Yes” or “No, or “Most of the time”, “Some of the time”, “Never”, statistical surveys invariably gloss over the complexities within social experiences. Many of us can not reduce our experiences into a neat survey response. Our lives are simply too messy.
With surveys, a respondent is often required to tick a box or mark a five point likert scale. In some cases, participants SMS their response or click a pop up internet survey. A fun pop up survey is then transformed into rigorous social research via a sexy media release. Some academics and government bureaucrats receive training in writing these so-called ‘sexy media releases’.
A media release announced that one in five Australians suffers from a mental illness. This statistic was computed from a survey of 10,000 Australians. A breakdown of the statistics indicates a range of disorders, each with different prevalence rates. In the media release, however, disorders such as anxiety disorders, substance abuse and depression all merged into an homogenous “mental illness”.
Although measuring mental illness via a household survey is an inexact science, the survey generated colourful bar graphs that gave the impression of certainty. These statistics indicated that only 1% of Australians with a mental illness were admitted to hospital. Was this because their illnesses were not serious enough to warrant hospitalisation? Or was there a lack of hospital beds? Once again, without knowing the stories behind the statistics, it is not possible to interpret the data in a meaningful way.
A simplistic question invariably receives a simplistic answer. However, with the aid of computer software, a simplistic answer is given power. People listen to numbers. A number such as “20% of Australians” has media currency, irrespective of the size of the sample or the methods used to collect the information.
It is sometimes difficult to differentiate credible social research from the rest. Few of us have the time, or indeed the expertise, to go back to the original data and see the flaws in the research design, the misrepresentation of the data and the over-simplification of the findings. If we did, we would see that simplistic statistics can be used as both a political tool and a marketing strategy.
The current trend to use a “one in five statistic” makes a nonsense of both the numbers and the conclusions drawn from these numbers. The “one in five Australians” statistic is a reminder that the numbers never speak for themselves. There are often complex stories behind the numbers. This complexity can not be reduced to a percentile or a bells curve because many Australians simply do not fit the numbers.
First published on ABC Radio National Perspective on 28 June 2006