Lords of all we survey

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‘How to Lie With Statistics’ may have been written in 1954 by American Darrel Huff, but nearly half a century later it still tops the statistics best-seller list (though hardly a mass market) and is reputed to be the most widely read statistics books in history, having been translated into 22 languages. The English language edition alone has, to date, sold 1.5 million copies.

In an Island with such a voracious appetite for surveys, this entertaining and informative little book should be compulsory reading. What Huff did so cleverly was compose a very readable tome to illustrate the common errors, both intentional and unintentional, associated with the interpretation of statistics, and how these errors can lead to inaccurate conclusions.

When the results of surveys are used to determine the policies, strategies and rules and regulations that increasingly govern our daily existences (and which result in spending millions of pounds of taxpayers’ – our – money), we should all be allowed to take an active part. Notwithstanding a possible wide interest in any subject under survey, the practice of good old sampling comes into play.

Sampling is that part of statistical practice concerned with the selection of individual observations intended to yield knowledge about a subject, topic or matter of concern.

A survey conducted solely among stakeholders will produce as predictable a result as those where the general public are invited to participate, going on the assumption that we only take part in what interests us or which we feel passionately about.

By randomly selecting a manageable number of good burghers from any community, the statistician hopes to produce a cross-section of public opinion – as with the 2,000 Island households recently surveyed for their opinions on issues regarding our heritage. This is a laudable exercise at such crucial times when the environment, arts and heritage are so disgustingly low on our beloved politicians’ radar.

I was not one of the select 2,000, so I had to wait until an advance copy of the report landed in my e-mail basket early last week. Although not privy to the questions, I was mystified from the outset as to why such an important survey appeared to only directly touch one of the Island’s several heritage organisations -Jersey Heritage – when others, such as the Société Jersiaise, the National Trust for Jersey, the CI Occupation Society and the guardians of our historic manor house, play an equally important role in protecting and promoting our heritage.

We did not need a survey to tell us the obvious – that what matters most to the inhabitants of this slab of granite is the natural environment, or to be more precise, the Island’s natural heritage. What keeps bringing people to our shores is its natural beauty, like as the wide-open expanse of St Ouen’s Bay experienced at ground level or from vantage points above, the lunarscape of the inter-tidal reaches from the Dicq to Seymour, the breathtaking scenery of the north coast, the yet unspoilt countryside, and the picturesque tiny bays and harbours.

Bearing in mind that just 52% of the total sample population responded – and that percentages can be used to greatly overinflate real figures – 92% thought the natural environment gave Jersey its identity, as opposed to the 78% who valued the significance of landmark historical buildings.

More impressively, the survey revealed that the most important single factor in that identity was, again, the natural environment (coastline, countryside, wildlife). A total of 11% voted for historical events and 8% were in favour of landmark historical buildings (castles, churches etc).

Amazingly, the Island’s network of lanes, hedgerows and walls registered little merit, which probably explains the sorry state of mile upon mile of them.

The Island’s heritage and environment have been on my mind of late, as I have undertaken guided tours for friends and family visiting from the UK and Australia. One outing broke a duck on my part: a first visit to the Echréhous, in a diminishing sea mist to explore islets inhabited by curious huts and houses and to gaze back on the outstanding edifice of the towering north coast.

JERSEY is packed full of history and natural beauty, from the standing stones that litter Les Mielles and the dolmens dotted around almost every parish to the historic cottages, farmhouses, manors, castles and towers. And there, perhaps, lies the problem.

Those who live with such a variety of historical landmarks as they go about their daily business have a tendency to take it all for granted. When you’ve grown up surrounded by prehistoric relics and monuments, complemented by an impressive castle or two, what fresh appeal can they have?

There exists of culture of ‘been there, seen that and might go again in ten years’. Sometimes it takes the experience of seeing our historical landmarks through the eyes of first-time visitors to make us realise what we have. The people of Jersey can be as guilty of apathy to their culture as they are to politics and political reform.

How do we place a value on that culture, our environment and heritage? In such stringent economic times, some have suggested that the future of the Maritime Museum and Hamptonne should be balanced against restoring the headland at Plémont. When such a ridiculous notion is heard from the lips of politicians, there is grave cause for concern.

The States can dish out £44 million to protect the economy and jobs, and rightly so, but what price the natural environment, culture and heritage?

The time has come to decide – but not before a thorough process that involves all the stakeholders, the public and politicians in an open and wide-ranging debate. Jersey’s heritage covers all ages, from pre-history to the 20th century buildings now worthy of protection by virtue of architectural merit.

It also encompasses every nook and cranny of the north coast, every grain of sand on the Violet Bank, each blade of grass at Les Mielles, the canopies of trees that shade the network of lanes, and the hedgerows and ancient granite walls that flank them.

It also includes the precious puffins that inhabit the precious headland at Plémont, the marsh harriers that soar over St Ouen’s Pond and the elusive agile frog.

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