Saturday 11 December 2010

How you ask a question

can affect the answer you will get. I tried to explain that in yesterday's post.
Now questions will sometimes be deliberately designed to give you the "wrong" answer - or the answer that the person asking the question wants you to hear. These are "leading" questions. Barristers try to get away with them in court - and succeed more often than they should.
Researchers are even worse. The really big public opinion research organisations are excellent at asking these sort of questions - Gallup, Mori, Morgan, Galaxy etc. Analyse the questions they ask. Analyse the statistics.
The Gallup people (we assume it really was them) 'phoned us before the last election. They wanted to know which way we intended to vote. My father and I never give that sort of information to other people, particularly not to people who 'phone. When the results appeared in the paper several days later there was something very interesting about them. Nowhere in the statistics was there any indication of how many people declined to answer their questions.
I also know people who reply but always give a false answer. That also affects the results. The end result is that, while public opinion polls may give you a guide to the way people are thinking, they are not very accurate and may be quite wrong. Other statistics can be used the same way.
Now you have been told that "statistics show that the number of people using the Book Street Library has dropped". This is hardly helpful if you want to keep the library open.
Now wait a minute, where did those statistics come from? How were they obtained? What do they really mean?
Are these statistics about (a) the number of books borrowed, (b) the number of people who borrowed them, (c) the number of people who have a library card for Book Street, (d) the number of people who came through the door? Were these statistics obtained through an actual count, a general observation, or by some other means? What do they actually mean?
Some time ago our local council tried to claim that numbers were down at our library. Any time I had been in there it seemed busier than ever. I queried the senior librarian as to what was going on and got the answer I suspected, "You can guess Cat. The book budget was cut right back this year. Borrowing is down because we put in the new computer terminals." Right. There was no new material for people to borrow. They borrowed less because they had read the available fiction they wanted to read. Interestingly though non-fiction borrowing was up because people could search the new on-line catalogue for themselves. The local council claim did not take into consideration what had happened. It was not in their interest to do that.
So, what is going on at Book Street? Much the same sort of thing. The place appears to be busy, indeed very busy. Yes, they have cut back on the book budget for three years in a row now. The number of books being borrowed is down. This may be why they are saying user numbers are down. But are user numbers really down? Definitely not according to the library staff. The number of card holders has increased. Attendance at all the groups which meet in the library has doubled and sometimes more than doubled for everything except the garden club and that has remained steady. The photocopying machine has been working overtime as people use it to copy documents to make job applications. There have to be restrictions on the time spent at the computer terminals so that all job searchers get a chance to use them. Library hours were also changed. The library is no longer open on Saturdays and it closes at 3pm on Mondays and Wednesdays. This means that parents who want to take their school age children must do so on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Fridays.
Now you can do something with all of this. You can use these things to show that, although the number of books being borrowed was down, there was a good reason and that more people are using the library, not less. They are also doing so despite the inconvenient hours and the lack of new stock.
These are the things you need to put in your letter. You need to emphasise the positive aspects of keeping the library open.
Make a list of what you need to find out and who you can find out from. Make a list of the positive points you want to emphasise.
Now, some of the information you feel you need may not be available. Do not despair. Sometimes it is a good idea to toss the ball into the other court. "Discussion with the library staff and my own observations suggest that..." and then ask, "Are you able to provide me with the following information...." Be reasonable about what you are asking for. If those who want to close the library cannot come up with the answers then you have another weapon to use - later.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So "lies, damned lies and statistics" Cat?