‘Perils of Perception’


A chara, – The “Perils of Perception” report (Weekend, August 22nd) is interesting, but leaves many questions about the survey itself. There are perils of perception in the results of the survey, which is a collection of perceptions.

Surveys will aim for the highest level of accuracy, but are not perfect. There is no mention of the margin of error in that survey. The first paragraph refers to the election of Donald Trump, and to the Brexit vote, saying that “these show how important our perceptions are when we make decisions”. Following the Brexit vote, the Guardian newspaper reported on June 24th, 2016: “It was a bad night for the opinion polls.” Following the Trump vote, the New York Times on May 31st, 2017, ran a story headlined, “Why key state polls were wrong about Trump.”

The Perils of Perception report contrasts perceptions with reality on Covid-19, as if the data we have gives a fully accurate picture of the reality. There have been many different approaches to compiling data, and difficulties in comparing such data from a variety of jurisdictions.

The questions posed in a survey can affect the outcome – not just how the questions are phrased, but also the questions which are not asked.

One question was: “Out of every 1000 people in Ireland who describe themselves as Catholic, how many go to Mass at least once a week?”

The perception is reported as 29 per cent; the actual number as 36 per cent. It is understandable why this question was chosen. No such question is reported as having been put about attendance at religious services by other Christian churches, or by those who describe themselves as Jewish or Muslim.

We need to be aware of the Perils of Perception built into reading reports such as this. – Is mise,



Dublin 16.

Sir, – Before you conduct any survey, you need to be clear as to what you are trying to find out and then design the survey and questions in a manner that takes you to this point. This was clearly missed in the survey dealt with in the “Perils of Perception” article in Weekend Review.

The results of this survey were presented as conclusive evidence that Irish people in general had a clear misconception of what actually went on in their own country, when in fact it told us that many Irish people did not know some quite obscure facts. The way the questions were phrased meant you could as well as give your best estimate of the population of some obscure nation state as you could answer these. Unfortunately the results were then presented by The Irish Times as conclusive proof that we the Irish people do not know the country we live in.

The only positive point from the feature was the lucid analysis provided by Pete Lunn – the problem with surveys like this is that “the questions are hard and people give cautious answers based on their experience”. – Yours, etc,



Co Louth.