This is to capture a little conversation - and any excuse to encourage people to watch a particular clip from "Yes, Prime Minister"!

The story begins with this article in The Times. In what was referred to as "The Times survey", we were given these results:

"Honorary fellowship is conferred by UCL to people who “have attained distinction in the arts, literature, science, business or public life”. The Times approached those fellows whose contact details were available online. Of those who responded, 21 criticised the university, four were neutral and none backed UCL."

To which I posted this comment - the link is to this article about Bentham and gender (and as someone pointed out, "hundreds of years" was an exaggeration - views expressed in the late 18th century aren't all that long ago):


To which Tom Whipple, science editor of The Times, responded with:

To which I replied - here with active links:

Thanks, Tom. I'll clarify why I consider what you referred to as "The Times survey" in this article, to be of little value in gauging the spread of sentiment here. Since you used the term "survey" and presented it as such, and as worthy of coverage in the news, let's apply those standards to it.

Firstly, the way the "sample" of less than one-third of the total group was gathered. On Twitter you said that was a work experience student looking for email addresses - and one Fellow (David Colquhoun) has responded that despite his prominence and being in the UCL directory, he didn't make the cut. No idea, basically, on what this sample is, or whether it is a representative one.

Secondly, presumably the email went out from The Times. Given the particular line that the Times has been taking on this issue, willingness to respond may be skewed by the source of the request.

Thirdly, the response rate is very low. Out of 300-ish people, those feeling strongly negative could be as low as 6%. Which would clearly be a very small proportion. Trying to dress this up as something somehow more rigorous than a trawl for comments is pushing the boundaries of what "survey" means by a very long way.

Finally, there's the matter of what they were asked, what "strongly" meant, and how unbiased an account of the facts of the case they had before answering. For that, there's no better source on the issue than Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes, Prime Minister.

It was a trawl for comments from a partisan source. It'd be better not to try to dress that up with the language of research.

(Via Twitter, we also know from Jon Butterworth that Bentham actually "looks quite serene in his box".)


Never miss a chance to get people to watch that training video on biased surveys from Yes, Prime Minister!