The problem with public surveys - as illustrated by so perfectly by Sir Humphrey
Photo: Another scene from Yes, Prime Minister. A gaping Bernard Woolley, the PM's private secretary, finds himself led into whatever answer a clever pollster wants him to be led into. Mr Wooley was played by actor Derek Fowlds, who died just over one year ago.
I hope readers will forgive me for referring to the 1980s BBC TV sit-com Yes, Prime Minister for the second time in a week - only the situation here in Hungary simply invites another such comparison.
As many may know, the government is launching its second so-called "National Consultation" regarding the public's opinions on the possible future policy on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Interestingly, and obligingly for many non-Hungarian speakers, it has published the official translation of these questions in English more or less simultaneously with the launch of the domestic campaign. These are available on the government website here:
But I've reproduced the entire notice here (in blue) for ease of reference and for readers to ponder.
Here are the questions of the ongoing National Consultation on the reopening
The following is the official, English transcript of the National Consultation questionnaire.
Hungary has been fighting against the coronavirus for months. The pandemic is not over just yet, and it’s causing all of us plenty of difficulties. With the start of the vaccination campaign, however, we have entered a new phase. There are some who believe that with vaccinations now underway, the lifting of restrictions can begin. Others say we should proceed with caution, as the pandemic is once again on the rise in Europe.
We want to assess your opinion, so please fill in the questionnaire below.
1. According to some, epidemiological restrictive measures can be lifted gradually, step by step. Others believe that these restrictions should only be lifted at the end of the pandemic. What do you think?
Restrictions must be lifted gradually, step by step.
Restrictions must be lifted in one step, at the end of the pandemic.
2. Those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from the disease will receive an immunity passport. There are some who support the idea that people with such passports should be exempted from certain restrictive measures. What do you think about this?
I support it.
I don’t support it.
3. According to some, as soon as the epidemiological situation permits, the 8 p.m. curfew should be one of the first measures eased. Do you agree with this?
4. According to some, as soon as the epidemiological situation permits, and alongside strict safety rules, the reopening of restaurants and hotels should be among the first steps taken. Do you agree with this?
5. According to some, as soon as the epidemiological situation permits, and alongside strict safety rules, the reopening of sports facilities (e.g., swimming pools, gyms, fitness centers) should be one of the first steps taken. Do you agree with this?
6. There are some who believe that attending events, concerts, festivals and sporting events should be permitted for those with immunity passports. Others believe that such events should not be organized or permitted for anyone to attend until the end of the pandemic. What do you think?
Immunity passport holders should be permitted to attend these events.
These events must not be permitted for anyone to attend until the end of the pandemic.
7. Some suggest that until the end of the pandemic, only foreigners who have been vaccinated or hold an immunity passport should be allowed to enter the territory of Hungary. Do you agree with this?
Well, what do you think of it all? Now, before anyone ponders too deeply (and possibly erroneously) it should be said that - assuming the answers are handled as per previous 'National Consultations' - the government assesses all returned 'consultations' in house.
Thus, with no independent supervision, there is no transparency regarding the results, nor even how many people responded. If the government announces they have one, two or three million respondents, we have to take their word for it - or not - depending on our personal scepticism of this administration's ethical standards.
Secondly, as anyone who has watched Sir Humphrey lead Bernard Woolley by the metaphorical horns (or at least some part of the male anatomy) into agreeing with whatever Humpy wants is aware of at least some of the dangers of public consultations - as illustrated in this clip.
Now this Hungarian survey is nothing like as blatantly manipulative as Sir Humphrey: for a start, Hungarians can fill in the survey at home, without the pressure from a pollster on hand with rapid fire questions.
But it certainly leaves much open to interpretation by respondents. Take question 2: There are some who support the idea that people with such passports should be exempted from certain restrictive measures. What do you think about this?
Well, I think I want to know what is meant by "certain restrictive measures"? How is it possible to answer this question without knowing what these are? Ditto question 5, what is meant by "strict safety rules"?
Or what about question 3: According to some, as soon as the epidemiological situation permits, the 8 p.m. curfew should be one of the first measures eased. Do you agree with this?
My answer: As soon as the epidemiological situation permits, all restrictions should be lifted - by definition. The same logic makes questions 4 and 5 nonsensical.
As for question 6, who cares what 'some believe' or 'others believe'? Or myself for that matter?
What matters is what is needed to suppress and ultimately eradicate this virus, taking into account the cost in lives and medical suffering to be weighed against the hardship to be endured in terms of economic, social and psychological costs.
And I would contend neither Dr László Professzor Úr in Buda, nor Marika néni on the puszta has any clue as to how to answer those question with any certainty - unless, the good professzor doktor is both an economist, epidemiologist and healthcare expert combined genius.
In truth, we elect and pay governments to answer such complex questions for us by assembling expert teams, asking them relevant questions, listening and taking considered action as a result.
Launching a "consultation" with nonsensical questions like this is not only an expensive sham, but one that enables the government to use and misuse each and any answers (assuming it actually collates and analyses the results honestly in the first place) to its own advantage as and when it feels like.
As for question 7, given the barrage of anti-foreigner propaganda emanating from this administration since 2010, even Sir Humphrey would be embarrassed to ask it.
Oh, and by the way, after some low numbers earlier in the week, official new infections of Covid 19, yesterday jumped to 2,853, with deaths at 104 - numbers not seen since mid-January.
Note: for the full episode, see: Yes Prime Minister The Ministerial Broadcast S01E02
(The sound is not so clear in the full episode as in the clip)