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27 March 2012

Statements of obvious #2: Moscow Times/VTsIOM


Today’s Moscow Times contains an extremely interesting report of a recent poll which suggests that there has been a decline in the number of Russians who wish to emigrate. It attributes this in part to the protests of the last few months. Many people who, five years ago, would have felt so disempowered that they preferred life abroad have changed their minds about their own country. They feel they can influence its future, and now wish to stay and be part of that future. So far, so cool.
     Then I read that the statistics from which the conclusions had been drawn came from a state-run poll by VTsIOM. Not quite so cool: perhaps I would do well take them with a grain of salt. But they did have the ring of truth. I can believe that there is a new mood amongst the Bolotnaya folk—if I may call them that for short.
     But the more I read, the less convinced I became. So many statistics were quoted that I, for one, began to have doubts. Finally, I read the last paragraph, which makes the point that there is an age dimension to the issue. This is what it said:
“The older a person gets, the less likely they are to want to leave: 25-35 year olds (14 percent), 35-44 year olds (13 percent), 45-59 year olds (7 percent), people over 60 (1 percent), dead people (0 percent).”
      But surely dead people have, in every meaningful sense, already emigrated? And if they have not, presumably their visas have expired? And how did the pollsters establish the wishes of these people? By what means were the interviews conducted? With a ouija board during a séance, or what? What was the poll sample in this category? Or was the figure simply a logical deduction from the assumption that dead men don’t walk, and therfore cannot get onto aeroplanes?
     Of course, I made that last statistic up, in order to emphasise my point. The article as printed actually ended with “...people over 60 (1 percent).” But there is a problem with the sort of precision that ran though the whole piece and which was becoming almost funny by the last sentence. It gives a scientific gloss which the pollsters presumably hope will make their conclusions more believable but which in real life has the opposite effect.
     Similarly it is a strange fact, but it is true, that the more you state the obvious, the less people—at least British people—will believe you. If you want to improve credibility, tell people something that they did not know but which they see could quite possibly be true, and go easy on the statistics.
     An English expression which Russians like the VTsIOM pollsters would do well to ponder is “wet behind the ears”. To state the obvious is to treat people as if they are “wet behind the ears”, which means they are naive, and that they have not yet been exposed to the world. Newly born animals are licked dry by their mothers, except in the places where their mother’s tongue cannot reach. One of those is behind the ears (according to legend), and so a young faun is “wet behind the ears” for a few hours.
      The VTsIOM pollsters—or rather the staff who wrote the press release based on the pollsters’ work—would do well to remember that if you want to convince worldly-wise people of important new trends, do not treat them as if they are wet behind the ears. Do not state the obvious, and never try to ram home an argument with masses of statistics which can never be checked against ordinary experience in the way that more general statements can.
     The alternative is to risk getting yourself into the sort of ludicrous tangle which Dmitri Rogozin did when discussing reproduction (see post 10 February: Statement of the obvious #1). I don’t think he persuaded very many people. Likewise, I am not convinced that there is a huge change in Russian emigration intentions as a result of Bolotnaya etc. But I may be wrong. I simply don’t know. And that is the worst possible criticism of a poll which was published presumably in order to inform me.


  1. the far it goes the more I wish to leave, btw, but it was not so when I was "wet behind the ears", so, younger. and it is not that I am more experienced and less naive now and do not believe in the very possibility of improvement, but more of a feeling like I am wasting my time surviving and struggling and — there is not as much time left as when it was when I was in my 20s.

  2. dead people (0 percent).

    It's a lie! there is no evidence that "dead people" mentioned in the report
    LIER, LIER, LIER!!!!

    1. Read on.... Next paragraph: "I made that last statistic up". By the way, on a point of spelling: it is "liar" (not "lier").