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“what a drag”, indeed

On the Canada Day theme, I just want to harp on one of my favourite targets: bad statistics in the media. The Globe and Mail has a prominently featured article, Canadian citzenship and the generational divide, which claims that something called “The Dominion Institute” has found there are “remarkably different attitudes among those between older Canadians and the younger generation”.

The most startling difference in attitude was found when respondents were asked why they thought Canada was a successful country. Nearly three-quarters of older Canadians agreed with the suggestion that it was because Canadians share common history, heroes and national symbols. By contrast, 37 per cent of the those between 18 and 34 said it was because there was no “strong national identity that individuals and groups are expected to adopt.”

The message here is that the former opinion is held by the older generation and the latter by the younger. But the statistics in this very paragraph actually contradict it. In fact, the great majority of the “younger generation” — 63% — reject what the article calls a “postmodern” national identity. In fact, 37% isn’t really very much like “nearly-three-quarters”, and comparing them is kind of, you know: stupid. Which, of course, would be apparent even to the most oblivious skimmer if instead of “nearly-three-quarters”, they had actually given a number. I looked at the Dominion Institute web site to find out what the number actually was, and if there were other answers respondents could give, but they don’t bother to say.

The article goes on:

The Maple Leaf flag is important to those 55 and over: 63 per cent of their households own a flag and a similar percentage of that group displays it in a window or flies it from a pole. By contrast, just one in two Canadians under 35 owns a flag and only 38 per cent of that group fly it.

Two points here. First: 0.63 * 0.63 = 0.40. So 40% of households fly the Maple Leaf? I’m sorry, but what the fuck? I’ve been all over Canada, and if you told me 4% of households flew the flag, I’d be skeptical. Second, show me another Western country where 20% of people under 35 fly their country’s flag. On campus at UBC, the Maple-Leaf-stitched-to-the-backpack is ubiquitous. You don’t see this in the US or Australia or New Zealand. This is supposed to be evidence that the flag is unimportant?

Anyway, the source of the problems in this piece of journalism quickly makes itself apparent. The Dominion Institute co-founder, Rudyard Griffiths, was apparenly interviewed extensively. So extensively, in fact, that it is, shall we say, “easy to speculate” that the writer of the article simply presented Griffiths’ interpretations rather than actually looking at the numbers and drawing his own conclusions. Apparenly the poll results

saddened Mr. Griffiths. He said the views of young people have been shaped a “culture of rights” in which they were raised. As a result, they have little idea of the obligations that a country sometimes requires for its survival. … He suggested that the reaction by many younger Canadians to demands placed on their grandparents 60 years ago would be to say “what a drag” because it would curtail their freedom to do what they wanted to do.

Given that pretty much every other under-35 I know is concerned about climate change, acknowledges that doing anything about it will involve sacrifices, and is willing to make them, I’m gonna go ahead and call bullshit on this. I’m also gonna go way out on a limb and speculate that Stephen Harper’s long-time climate change denial and then insistence that it couldn’t be dealt with because it would raise gas prices and harm pensions was perhaps targeted ever-so-slightly toward those born before 1952. Isn’t the media supposed to call people on things like this? Or at least present another opinion?

I don’t, by the way, think this is a case of “right-wing media bias”. I suspect this is just pure laziness and incompetence, combined with rather clever spinning by this Griffiths fellow.

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