Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How much trust can we place in the 'most trusted' list?

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, July 19.)

Reader’s Digest recently released a bizarre list purporting to name New Zealand’s most trusted people.

Bizarre, because there was no discernible logic or consistency in the names listed. The top 10 included three scientists, a fashion designer, a celebrity chef, a judge, a playwright and two comedians.

How some names ended up on the list is a mystery. I mean, Chief High Court Judge Helen Winkelmann? How many New Zealanders have even heard of her? Even as judges go, she has kept a relatively low profile. But there she was at No 4.

I’m sure Justice Winkelmann is a person of the utmost probity (I would certainly hope so, given her office), but the sceptic in me finds it highly unlikely that her name would spring forth spontaneously in the mind of the average Kiwi.

No 12 on the list was a radio host I’d never heard of, with the improbable name of Jay-Jay (reason enough, I would have thought, to have automatically excluded her).

What’s going on here? Well, there’s a clue at the bottom of the Reader’s Digest press release. It reveals that the “most trusted” New Zealanders were chosen by 532 adults who were given 100 names and asked to rank them in order of supposed trustworthiness.

In other words there was a high degree of pre-selection. That immediately undermines the “most trusted” description, because survey participants might have come up with completely different names had they been left to do so unprompted. But it does help explain why so many of those chosen are not household names.

The top three – Sir Ray Avery, Sir Peter Gluckman and Sir Paul Callaghan – are all scientists. My guess is that they were chosen not so much because each has demonstrated his trustworthiness, but because people like to think of scientists as incorruptible seekers after the truth.

In other words, it’s possible they achieved their rankings because of what they do rather than who they are. The same might be said of Justice Winkelmann, whose inclusion is otherwise so puzzling.

But playwright Roger Hall (No 5), comedian Bret McKenzie (No 6), fashion designer Denise l’Estrange-Corbet (No 7) and celebrity chef Simon Gault (No 9)? How do we explain those?

This is where it gets truly bizarre, because the public has little, if any, basis on which to judge whether these people really are to be trusted.

Before their lawyers reach for the phone, let me say I am sure they are all individuals of irreproachable integrity. But their high ranking suggests that many survey respondents simply voted for people they admire for their looks, talent, wit or whatever.

Perhaps in future the research firm should present survey participants with a list of names and ask whether they would trust these people with their life savings, or to look after their children for a week.

That might deliver a more meaningful result. As it is, the survey is barely more credible than a Nigerian email.

Now if Reader’s Digest really wants to know what New Zealanders think, how about compiling a list of the country’s most despised people? That would be something.

Let me suggest a couple of names to get the ball rolling: Rod Petricevic and Macsyna King.

* * *

IT’S HARD to recall a time when the tone of public discourse was more vicious and abusive.

The ill-fated employers’ spokesman Alasdair Thompson and ACT leader Don Brash have both been on the receiving end of attacks that made little attempt to address the substance of the issues they raised. Far easier to shout them down with offensive epithets.

Of course both are considered fair game because they are Pakeha men of a certain age. “Dinosaur” is the insult-du-jour. Throw in a few other simplistic insults – “sexist” and “racist” are much in vogue – and it’s game, set and match. Who needs rational discussion?

The level of rancour in public debate has been cranked up tenfold by the internet, which allows people to spray invective around with impunity. In comment threads on blogs and media websites, puerile abuse trumps civilised discourse every time.

This is partly due to the sheer ease with which Internet users can lob their toxic bombs. It’s immediate and effortless. But a much more important factor is that the net confers anonymity, and anonymity gives courage to cowards.

Newspapers learned decades ago that they attracted a higher standard of letter by insisting that people sign with their own names rather than hiding behind pseudonyms. The net has yet to attain that level of maturity.

* * *

SPARE A THOUGHT for the hapless Germans. In the 1990s, prosperous West Germany had to shoulder the deadweight of the moribund communist East. Now these same industrious, thrifty people are being called on to bail out corrupt, feckless, ill-governed Greece. It seems a very high price to pay for the Germans’ determination to be good international citizens.

1 comment:

Rob Glennie said...

I don't think one can actually place confidence in such lists, since they are purely the brain child of the creator and subject to whatever whims s/he wishes to impose. We don't know what criteria they have used or what their justification for that criteria is. Given the likely readership of the Readers Digest, it is unlikely that they have a sufficiently broad cross section through the population of New Zealand to really claim any degree of accuracy.