UK Primary (3-6)
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Points of View (Investigation)
Lesson

Points of view

A point of view is a person's opinion about a particular issue. The person may also try to convince others to believe their point of view based on facts or evidence. However, a "right" answer is not always clear. For example, look at the picture on the right. Is the glass half full or half empty? Technically, it's both - it just depends on your point of view.

Some people use statistics to try and "trick" people into believing their point of view. Would you say that "A full glass of water has $200%$200% more water than this one", or would you say that "This glass has $50%$50% less water than a full one"? Again, both are technically true, but the way we experience and feel these numbers may not be exactly the same. That's why it's important to consider why people are presenting certain information - and what they may not be telling you.

With every graph, report or media article you see that uses statistics it is worth identifying two things:

  • Who is the primary audience?
  • Who is the author, and what is the author's purpose?

Some data can be used to directly persuade an audience towards a particular point of view. This can be done by not portraying the entire story - hiding the way that the data was collected, or not showing all of it in a proper context - or by presenting the data in other ways designed to hide the truth.

 

We need more paths! The FWE and the Council

Let's consider the following story. A local community group is trying to convince the council that more bicycle and pedestrian paths are needed in the area. The group "Feet and Wheels for the Environment!" (FWE) have a meeting with one of the council representatives. In the meeting the FWE began by presenting this graph:

The representative for the FWE said:
"A lack of formed bicycle paths in the area has resulted in a rising number of serious accidents for cyclists. If the council builds more pedestrian and bicycle paths for commuters, then the number of accidents will decrease."

The representative then showed this graph:

They explained that the group conducted a survey of 500 residents and asked them three questions:

  • How do you get to work?
  • On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the highest, how happy were you yesterday?
  • On a scale of 1-5 with 5 being the highest, what would you say your life satisfaction level is?

The representative said:
"This clearly demonstrates that those who walk or cycle to work are happier in themselves and with their life, so the council should be doing all it can to ensure health and happiness in the community."

Then it was the council's turn to present a graph, and the councilwoman chose this one:

The councilwoman said:
"There is such a low percentage of the local population walking or cycling to work, so spending more money on bike paths and footpaths would not be a good use of money. Most people use public transport or drive a car, so the money should be spent on more roads and better parking, not on bicycle and pedestrian paths".

It seems that both parties have made reasonable claims, supported by statistics. Who is right, and who is wrong?

Before asking those sorts of questions, let's try to understand the statistics that were presented a little better. We should ask ourselves:

  • Who is the primary audience?
  • Who is the author, and what is the author's purpose?

 

The FWE

Let's consider the FWE and their two graphs.

Discussion

  1. Who is the audience for the FWE data?
  2. Who is the author of these graphs?
  3. What is the FWE trying to achieve and how does this data support their cause?
  4. How was/could the data have been obtained?
  5. How could the group have intentionally collected data that supported their claims?
  6. How could the group have accidentally collected data that supported their claims?
  7. How did they choose to present their data, and how did it enhance their claims?
  8. Do you think their data is convincing?
  9. What information could they have left out, intentionally or accidentally?

The council

Let's consider the council's graph:

Discussion

  1. Who is the audience for the council data?
  2. Who is the author of this graphs?
  3. What is the council trying to achieve and how does this data support their cause?
  4. How was/could the data have been obtained?
  5. How could the council have intentionally collected data that supported their claims?
  6. How could the council have accidently collected data that supported their claims?
  7. How has the choice of graph presentation enhanced their claims?
  8. Do you think this data is convincing?
  9. What information could they have left out, intentionally or accidentally?

 

Do we need to ban dihydrogen monoxide?

Here are some important and frightening things you should know about dihydrogen monoxide:

  • It is the main component of acid rain
  • It contributes to the greenhouse effect, and is a recognised cause of climate change
  • It causes erosion of natural landscapes
  • It is used in the distribution of all pesticides
  • It is used as an additive in "junk-foods" and other unhealthy food products
  • No amount of washing can remove contamination by this chemical
  • It causes severe burns
  • Inhalation (breathing it in) is extremely unpleasant and is often deadly

Based on these facts, do you want to join the call to ban dihydrogen monoxide?

Discussion

Instead of making a decision right away, let's ask some questions, just like we did before.

  1. Who is the audience?
  2. Who is the author, and what is the author's purpose
  3. How was/could the data have been obtained?  
  4. How could data have been intentionally collected to support the ban?
  5. How has the language been used to enhanced the claims?
  6. Do you think this data is convincing?
  7. What information could have been left out, intentionally or accidentally?

 

The truth behind the dihydrogen monoxide scandal

In 1997, 14-year-old Nathan Zohner, gathered 43 votes from his 50 classmates to ban dihydrogen monoxide. Zohner received the first prize at Greater Idaho Falls Science Fair for analysis of the results of his survey, which was actually convincing people to ban water! H20 is the chemical symbol for water, and is pronounced "dihydrogen monoxide". Nathan exploited his classmates' unfamiliarity with chemistry to scare them into agreeing to something that they wouldn't have agreed to, if they had all the information.

The experiment became a nationwide news story. In recognition of his experiment, journalist James K. Glassman coined the term "Zohnerism" to refer to "the use of a true fact to lead a scientifically and mathematically ignorant public to a false conclusion." Read more about it here.

 

Misleading advertising

The drink company Ribena once claimed that "the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of oranges."

In 2004, two New Zealand high school students scientifically proved that Ribena juice has far less vitamin C than orange juice. As a result, the company ended up in an Auckland District Court, and insisted that they hadn't lied. Still, the court fined the company for misleading consumers, and made them correct their ads to tell people that this statement wasn't true. Read more about it here.

Discussion

  1. Why did the Ribena company decide to tell people that "the blackcurrants in Ribena have four times the vitamin C of orange juice?"
  2. How could this claim be true, even though it is also true that the Ribena drink has much less vitamin C than orange juice?
  3. Do you think Ribena's sales would have changed once people found out this wasn't true? Why? 
  4. Can you think of other examples of misleading advertising? How do they use the language of statistics to manipulate their audience?

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