Soft soap – a lessen on misreading statistics from the BBC

If you take the BBC’s website at face value, you might think that hardly anyone – or, at least, a minority – uses soap in solid bars any more. As the article puts it:

How do you like to scrub up? If you prefer liquid soap to the solid stuff, you’re in the ascendancy. According to market research firm Mintel 87% of Britons regularly buy liquid soap, against 71% who buy bars of it.

That’s under a headline of “Five reasons some people prefer bars of soap to liquid soap”. The rest of the article is a rather patronisingly toned set of reasons for still using bars of soap, based on the implicit premise that most people don’t.

Except, of course, that most people do.

Assuming Mintel’s stats are accurate (and there’s no reason to assume otherwise), 71% of people buy solid soap, as opposed to 87% who buy liquid soap. But those figures add up to more than 100%, so they clearly overlap. For most people, buying solid and liquid soap is not a mutually exclusive choice.

We can see that more easily if we reverse the figures. If 87% buy liquid soap, then 13% don’t. And if 71% buy solid soap, then 29% don’t. Add those two together, and we find that 42% of people only ever buy one form of soap, either solid or liquid. Which means that 58% of people buy both. (That’s discounting the possibility that some people may buy no soap at all, but it’s correct if the survey is of soap buyers in particular rather than shoppers in general).

Now, if 58% of people buy both solid and liquid soap, that probably means that they’re using them for different purposes or in different contexts. So, what are those different uses?

Well, my own experience, and something which seems to be borne out by observation of other people’s houses when I happen to find myself in one, is that liquid soap is more convenient for handwashing. A liquid soap dispenser by the kitchen sink, or beside the sink in a bathroom or toilet, is both convenient and non-messy – unlike bar soap, which can get nastily grungy in soap dish by the sink. Liquid soap also makes it easier, when washing your hands, to ensure that you get soap even into the cracks and get your hands nice and clean all over.

For bathing or showering, on the other hand, bar soap works better. As the BBC article says, you can hold it in one hand, which makes it easier to give yourself a good scrub. And all the other reasons in the article apply too, including the fact that bar soap is generally perceived as more luxurious. You can also use bar soap under water, which is pretty much essential in the bath. You can’t do that with liquid soap as it all dissolves away faster than you can apply it to your skin.

I’ve got no stats to support it (other than those from Mintel quoted by the BBC), but I’d hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority of people who take a bath regularly use bar soap. And almost certainly a majority of those who prefer a shower, although in this case there is a significant minority who prefer shower gels (which, quite probably, accounts for the difference between bar soap buyers and liquid soap buyers – the 29% of people who never buy bar soap are very likely to be showerers rather than bathers and prefer gel to solid soap).

Either way, though, the implication in the article’s headline and introductory text, that bar soap users are a dwindling minority, is completely false. Maybe the BBC could do an article on how not to misread statistics?

Licence to swill

Apropos the continuing furore over the late Jimmy Savile and the definitely not late Stuart Hall, the names of Andy Grey and Richard Keys sprang to mind.

In case you’d forgotten (or the whole case had passed you by to begin with), Grey and Keys were the megastar presenters of Sky Sports’ football coverage. Unfortunately for them, they were caught on tape making distinctly sexist remarks about a female referee, and Grey then compounded that by jokingly asking a female Sky presenter to tuck his shirt in for him in a way that had clear sexual overtones.

As offences go, that probably rates no more than a 1 or 2 on the Savile-Hall scale (where Savile himself defined the meaning of 10 and Hall was somewhere around 7). Nonetheless, Sky didn’t see the funny side and sacked the pair of them.

So why are they relevant? Well, when it’s becoming increasingly clear that the BBC has a long-standing problem with abuse perpetrated by its senior stars, then the questions of how and why obviously need to be asked.

Sky sacked Grey and Keys because they had become a commercial liability. Despite being established stars who were, at least up to that point, very popular with their audience, they crossed a line where that was no longer enough. It’s also notable that Sky made no attempt to cover up their misbehaviour. The BBC, on the other hand, seems to have had an institutional reluctance to expose its star players to public scrutiny in a way which might damage their appeal.

So, what is the difference? Why should a commercial broadcaster (mostly owned, let’s not forget, by popular hate figure Rupert Murdoch) act more honourably than the great cultural institution which is the BBC?

I can’t answer that for certain. In any case, it’s likely that there are all sorts of different internal motivations, pressures and traditions which created that difference in culture. But, even so, I can’t help thinking that at least part of it is due to the unique way in which the BBC is funded.

BBC headlines are ‘mostly guff’

One of the things that irritates me a lot about the BBC news website is its tendency to use quotes as headlines. That is, where all or part of the headline is simply a quote of what someone else has said. These are some examples:

Councils ‘have £13bn in reserves’
Data scheme ‘as good as ID cards’
Spending cuts ‘to fund schools’
Deficit cut ‘could take longer’
New runways ‘not the answer’
Trains fiasco ‘to cost taxpayer’
Starbucks ‘planning changes to tax policy’
Guernsey girl’s crash death ‘a tragic accident’
Motorist ‘hits speed of 136mph’
Bears ‘defecate in woods’

Actually, I made the last one up, but you get the point.

There’s nothing wrong per se with the headline quote. It has two main purposes, firstly, when the quote itself is the story (eg, “Pope says ‘I am not a Catholic'”) and secondly to indicate that the statement is a matter of opinion rather than necessarily being a fact. Up to a point, that’s an established journalistic tradition, and for those who understand it then there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with it.

The problem I have with the BBC is its tendency to over-use the headline quote, and use it in a way which is itself misleading. Here, for example, is how the BBC captioned two very similar stories today:

Stuart Hall ‘innocent of charges’
Ex-news boss denies raping girl

Both of these are stories related to a well-known person who has been accused of sexually-related crimes. I make no comment at all on whether either of them are actually guilty or not; that’s for a court to decide and I have absolutely no evidence available to me that would enable me to make any even remotely informed decision. But the first caption strongly suggests that Stuart Hall is, in fact, innocent, or at at least there is strong evidence that he is, while in the second case we just have someone denying guilt – which, of course, is what people accused of crimes often do. You have to click through the link to the actual story to discover that the person quoted as calling Hall “innocent” happens to be his lawyer, someone who is, of course, paid to say precisely that. So why not caption the link “Stuart Hall denies accusations”, or “Stuart Hall insists he is innocent”?

Apart from the fact that a lot of quoted headlines would simply be more informative if they were written without the quotes, it seems to me that the BBC is far too willing to use quotes that give a far from neutral impression of the content of the story. And that, quite simply, is bad journalism.