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Anti-corporal punishment lobbyists abuse the scientific process to further their pernicious political cause

By Barbara Faithfull

On 16th June 2009 I wrote (in “The fraudulent case against corporal punishment”) : “The anti-corporal punishment lobbyists operate dishonestly” etc. Nevertheless I hardly expected them so soon to provide the excellent proof of that assertion which has come to hand over the past few days via abuse of the scientific process. Professional statisticians are strangely slow to challenge this sort of deceitful lobbying, so I feel bound to make some effort in that direction.

For example take the 29th June N.Z.Herald pseudo news headline : “Three out of four think poll waste of money”. Oh yes? A poll by Research New Zealand (whoever they are) of 481 people “found” 77 per cent did not support the $M8.9 being spent on the smacking referendum.

So the figure of 77 per cent of 481 people — a mere drop in the bucket population-wise – is supposed to be statistically significant — representative of the population as a whole – and so enough to score political points in the current debate. Of course it is not statistically significant in this current debacle and offering it as such is sheer political chicanery and abuse of the scientific process.

Moreover, the Herald should be ashamed for giving publicity to such misleading and obvious political posturing by the anti-corporal punishment lobby.

My other example was the 23rd June 2009 media release by Barnardoes, another anti-corporal punishment lobby. Their gloating but highly misleading heading said it all : “Smacking – ‘It’s wrong, full stop’ say children”. “Children” ?

The implication is, of course, that children in general say this, but that sensationalist heading to their press release is simply the result of more shifty, politically expedient statistical jiggery pokery.

There are so many questionable aspects to this example which deserve an in-depth analysis and challenge, but I shall limit myself to just a few points, for now at least.

Firstly, the children involved in the survey were interviewed by telephone, with all the many and varied complications which that would create anyway. This was conducted on a child helpline known as 0800WHATSUP, and operated by the Kids’ Help Foundation Trust. That means that the survey respondents were self-selected, which is highly unscientific; so there was no random sampling of the populace.

Also, according to the survey’s accompanying information, this helpline receives more than 1400 calls daily from children and young people from throughout NZ, and the survey was conducted for 14 days between 27th April last and 10th May. So we should be able to safely assume that the helpline received over that survey period of 14 days (1400 calls x 14 days) almost 20,000 calls.

Yet for numerous reasons — and many quite valid, as explained — the final tally of “valid responses” able to be used in the survey was whittled down to a miniscule 1677, and out of those an even more miniscule 958 — out of nearly 20,000 – had opted for the punishment of parents so gloatingly paraded above the press release. The number opting not to punish parents incidentally, was 548, hence the hailing of the final result as a “majority” opting to have parents punished, despite the fact that such a figure would be statistically insignificant anyway.

So on that feeble and flimsy basis Barnardoes has seen fit to trumpet and gloat over the “opinions” of children who in no way represent New Zealand’s children as a whole, let alone the majority of them!. Moreover, the crafty and most honourable-sounding pretext offered for this charade was : “As a means of providing children and young people with the opportunity to exercise their right under Article 12(1) of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, to express their point of view on a matter that affects them”. Etc. Oh yes?

So under a false cloak of scientific respectability, and under the noble guise of letting children’s views be heard, we have one more lot of biased and unscientific “research” and utterly predictable “findings”. These invariably are tailored to fit a predetermined outcome, the very antithesis of rigorous, objective, respectable scientific investigation.

Barnardoes must indeed be desperate to stoop to this level of dishonest lobbying.

Barbara Faithfull B.A.(Psych.Anthrop.)