“One in 10 French people believe the earth may be flat.”
What an amazing statistic, I thought: worth sharing widely on social media.
That’s 6.5 million French men or women, give or take. It means 40 people in my village believe science has been lying to us all this time, and at least 10 of my friends.
Either that, or the entire population of Hauts-de-France is credulous in the extreme.
Where did the statistic originate?
I had no doubt this statistic was true because it was mentioned in a book called The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything, by Professor Bobby Duffy of King’s College London, who explains how we misperceive reality and fool ourselves into accepting misinformation.
To be sure I was not misperceiving the reality of the French men and women around me, I decided to find out where this statistic originated.
It comes from a survey carried out by Ifop (the Institut français d’opinion publique) on behalf of two respectable organisations, the Fondation Jean-Jaurès and Conspiracy Watch.
In 2017, Ifop worked out how to take a statistically valid sample across the French population, got 1,252 selected individuals to answer the questions online, and the results you can read for yourself if you can be bothered to wade through them.
Of course, the figure is not true
For a start, the best you could get out of the data is that 9% of respondents agreed with the proposition that the earth may be flat.
That’s one in 11.11 people, which doesn’t sound half as good as one in 10.
But there are further problems. Most of the 9% did not strongly agree; only 2% were adamant.
Adjust for this margin of error, as opinion pollsters say, and you get one in 50 French people believing the earth might not be round, as we are always told it is.
However, earlier in the survey respondents were asked if they had heard of the possibility the earth might be flat.
Two-thirds (68%) said they knew nothing about it, so we would really have to say that only 2% of 32% know what they are talking about.
We are now down to 0.64% of the French population willing to believe this particular conspiracy theory.
That makes one in 156, far less impressive than one in 10 and probably similar for any country on earth.
No box to tick ‘don’t know or don’t understand’
All this assumes that the respondents understood the question (which was worded rather tortuously), were not drunk or trying to pacify crying infants as they clicked away on the survey pages, and that they were giving honest answers.
They might not have been aware that the survey was steering them in certain directions and even if they had realised it, what could they do?
There was no box to tick for ‘don’t know and don’t care’, ‘don’t understand’ or ‘don’t ask such stupid questions’ because the survey was deliberately trying to get a shocking answer that would make a good headline and justify the expense of the exercise.
Do not believe everything you read about France
The pollsters made the French news, as they had hoped, and must have been delighted to hear the statistic had crossed the Channel and turned up in a scholarly book.
I do not need to spell out the moral of this story: don’t believe everything you read or hear about France, and if a fact seems wrong, it probably is.
Check it before you broadcast it. It takes time and effort to get back to the original source, especially if it is in a foreign language, but if we do not, we let misinformation proliferate, and that is bad for all of us.
Now I must go and cancel all those social media posts I put online telling the world that my village is full of delusional, science-denying weirdoes.