Mike Hosking’s statistical ignorance is so extraordinary that one’s immediate reaction is that a description of it was satire; nobody could be as ill-informed as that – and certainly not a major public commentator.

The details are amusingly told on the Spinoff website, but briefly the NZ Herald reported an Auckland Transport survey of 1459 people which stated that ‘support for cycling overall is at 57 per cent, with 34 per cent saying they are “very supportive”. Those not supportive of cycling are at 11 per cent, with 8 per cent "very unsupportive"’

Hosking exploded, rejecting the survey results in part because, he said, so few people were involved. He went on ‘the Herald, who should know better, pass this crap off as news nowadays. And it’s wrong. It’s fraudulent.‘ His partner, Kate Hawkesby, added ‘I refuse to believe anyone in Auckland wants more cycle lanes,’ ignoring that in the survey at least 1000 Aucklanders had said they did.

So the pair opened a Facebook page inviting respondents to answer the question, ‘are cycle lanes good for the country?’. Forty-five minutes later Hosking announced that his own poll has received the same number of votes as the AT survey but that only 36 percent were in favour of cycleways. (More than zero, Kate.) Hosking adds that ‘under the [AT survey] rules, our results are as legitimate as theirs.’

Before explaining the ‘huh’, I report that eventually some 15,000 votes were cast with support for cycleways reaching 79 percent. Attempting a cowshot for a six, Hosking snicked the ball onto his middle stump. 

But whatever the result would have been, the ignorance Hosking displayed is remarkable. Remember he said that under the statistician’s ‘rules’ his results were as good as theirs. Statisticians certainly would not have thought so.

Their conclusion was derived from a random sample in which every Aucklander had an equal chance of being questioned. (In practice it is a little more complicated – a stratified sample – but the underlying theory holds.) If that happens then the average from the sample would be near the answer you would get if you asked every Aucklander.

In fact we can even tell how near the estimate is likely to be to the true figure – it is reported as the ‘margin of error’. The probability that the true figure is less than 50 percent is negligible.

The rules are quite clear, Mr Hosking, If a survey is not based on a random sample, any estimate it produces is, to use a firm you appear fond of, crap, That is as true for the later Hosking poll estimate of 79 percent supporting cycleways as for the earlier 36 percent.

(The size of the survey does not make a difference to the validity of the estimate. If the sample is not random, the estimate is still biased; to treat it otherwise is still nonsensical.)

Even more extraordinarily, Hosking interviewed the statisticians who ran the survey. If he did not understand the ‘rules’, he did not understand what he was discussing. It was like a toddler asking an adult about – er – sex. And that must apply every time Hosking discusses any survey, including political opinion polls. He has no credibility at all. Any opinion he offers on a survey is crap.

Of course statisticians would welcome the opportunity to teach him some elementary statistics. But that would require Hosking to start being humble enough to know how ignorant he was.

PS. Had Hosking attained the numeracy of a seven-year-old, he would have noticed that the sum of the numbers the Herald appear to exceed 100 percent. (57 + 34 + 11 + 8 = 110) The report conflated strong support for cycleways with those who just supported; it did the same for the unsupportive. The actual figures were 34% strongly supported, 23% supported, 3% were unsupportive and 8% strongly unsupportive with 32% not expressing an opinion. That the Hosking biased poll does not mention the latter group shows it was self-selected and invalid. As commonsense would tell you, even if you knew no statistical theory.

Comments (8)

by James Green on June 27, 2018
James Green

There has been a long, slow trend on the right of politics towards increasing use of knowingly lying. 2016 was the inflection point of this escalating trend as the right are now being very liberal in their use of lies, having realised that as long as their supporters like what they are saying it doesn't matter if what they say is true or not.

Maybe it is because I'm relatively young and more adaptable to change, but it mystifies me why intelligent commenters in the centre or on the left (or those few old conservatives who remain) are still willing to entertain the idea that people on the right don't know that they are lying. They have decided that routine major lies are worth the long term risk for the short term gain. The rules of the game have changed, "objective" reporting of "both sides" is no longer possible. Not reporting lies is the only reponsible course of action left, instead of denouncing them with outrage, counterintuitive as it may seem.

Sadly, in the commercial media this is all but impossible to stop now, as outrage drives clicks and eyeballs. And advertisement rolls on, ever so slowly crapifying the minds of everyone it touchs. That's the only way this all stops, if advertisement is ended (or at least drastically reduced). Dean Baker has a good idea for an alternative, in a word: vouchers. (That is the only area in which I will voice support for that normally pernicious word.)

by Kat on June 27, 2018

Hosking is a throwback to what were once the snake oil charmers peddling their wares to the hapless, the uninformed and those looking for a quick cure.

by Charlie on June 29, 2018

Hosking is correct, but maybe for the wrong reason:

Online surveys aren't worth a cent because the sample isn't controlled.

On any topical issue, those with a special interest are more likely to respond to the survey whilst the general public mostly can't be bothered.

So it is with cycling: Cycling club memebrs message each other to prompt them to answer the survey, thus providing a totally distorted response....

....which is exactly what AT wanted, in order to justify their ideologically driven projects.

PS I'm a cyclist too.




by Kat on June 29, 2018

Did you mean "trolling trick cyclist" Charlie.....

This from Simon Wilson the former editor of The Spinoff Auckland, Metro and Cuisine and senior writer at that good old rag the Herald.

"So, what are the facts.................

The survey was not opt-in. The company that did it, TRA, bought its list of contacts from a large database provider called Research Now. Participants were asked to take part in the survey without knowing what it was for.

It was not rigged in favour of anyone. On the contrary: participants were screened to ensure the age, gender and geographic spread throughout Auckland corresponded to census data. The survey was weighted to not favour anyone.

The sample size was not tiny. It was large enough to give a confidence level of 95 per cent and a margin of error of around 2.5 per cent.

All these things are common among market survey companies. The methodology has been endorsed by Professor Thomas Lumley, a statistician at the University of Auckland.

In fact, when Hosking told his listeners on the Friday what a good survey would be like, his prescription exactly matched the one he had complained about on the Monday.

More facts. The survey has been done each year for five years now. When it started respondents said they did not feel positive about cycling. Now, the proportions are reversed. Just as has happened with buses and trains, the attitudes of Aucklanders to cycling are changing fast............."

by Charlie on June 30, 2018

Yes I would like to retract most of that. I read the article in the Herald yesterday and thought "Oh bugger! I got that wrong!"


by Kat on June 30, 2018

Your candor in this instance is appreciated Charlie. You may have noted that the other snake oil salesman and master spin merchant Matthew Hooton has also during the week made a retraction and apologised for his publicly smearing of David Parker. Its time the old rag Herald had a clean out of these National party hacks. I'm not holding my breath though.

by Charlie on July 02, 2018

Take a step back Kat and try not to be a hack yourself, for the Labour Party 

In my view the jury on cycling is still out: I'm far from convinced that it will ever become a significant form of transport in Auckland. A weekend hobby maybe, but not much more. (I'm a weekend warrior on my bike, so in no way am I anti-bikes)

There is a hard core of commuters who use bikes. They will always use bikes regardless of cycle lanes and climate. They're 1-5% of Auckland commuters, depending on the suburb.

So the ratepayers, via the council, are throwing over a hundred million dollars at cycle lanes. Is that going to convert a significant number of commuters to take up cycling? I don't know, but I doubt it. It will swell the biking ranks slightly for sure, but the marginal cost per additional biker may end up being an astronomical figure.

And there is also the penalty of the additional congestion created by mangling the roads to create bike lanes.

Maybe e-bikes will enable the transformation - it solves part of the problem - hills - but it won't fix the Auckland climate.

Meanwhile the company I work for regards cycling as one of the top safety risks for its employees. Our statistics show our group of hardcore cyclists have frequent accidents, mostly not with cars - they just fall off. One can imagine the ACC cost if a large swath of beginners jump on bikes.

by Kat on July 02, 2018

I would consider taking a step back when spin merchants, trolls and other diversionary online manifestations of the National party stop posting outright lies.

Stick to the facts Charlie.


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