83.4% of all statistics are made up on the spot

In a recent post on Copenhagenize by Brian Glover (along with a reply from Mikael), Brian tried to build up a case for pushing cycling as a part of a sexy, high-status lifestyle in order to get more people out on the streets with their bikes.  And in this post, he referred to a survey discussed in an earlier post by Mikael that asked cyclists “Why do you choose to bicycle to work?”.  While Mikael attacked the options given for the answers (in what I considered to be a rather foolish argument on his part, but that’s another screed), Brian took issues with both the answers and the question.  According to him the question should have read:

“Why do you choose to do something that, in the eyes of 95% of your society, marks you as a freak and a loser?”

No one will say this out loud, of course – it’s not polite – but it’s the truth. And no one will answer this question honestly, either, but if they did, the choices would look like this:

A. I am too poor to get around in any other way. I have no choice. I am abject.

B. I have had my rights as a citizen stripped from me because of repeated, unforgivably bad behavior (i.e. drunk driving convictions). I am an outcast and a pariah.

C. I think most mainstream people are idiots, and I actively seek out their disapproval. I am a rebel. If the majority of people around me start biking, I’ll hate that too.

D. I genuinely don’t care what other people think of me. I am an independent thinker. I also have enough job security and social status that I can afford not to care what other people think of me. I am either uncommonly strong, or uncommonly privileged.

Brian then went on to build up his “cycling is perceived as low-class and freakish, we need to make it glamorous and sexy” argument from this claim.

“Why do you choose to do something that, in the eyes of 95% of your society, marks you as a freak and a loser?
No one will say this out loud, of course – it’s not polite – but it’s the truth. And no one will answer this question honestly, either, but if they did, the choices would look like this:
A. I am too poor to get around in any other way. I have no choice. I am abject.
B. I have had my rights as a citizen stripped from me because of repeated, unforgivably bad behavior (i.e. drunk driving convictions). I am an outcast and a pariah.
C. I think most mainstream people are idiots, and I actively seek out their disapproval. I am a rebel. If the majority of people around me start biking, I’ll hate that too.
D. I genuinely don’t care what other people think of me. I am an independent thinker. I also have enough job security and social status that I can afford not to care what other people think of me. I am either uncommonly strong, or uncommonly privileged.”

And so in the comments section of the blog, I asked a simple question of Brian, “Could you cite the source of this ‘truthful’ statistic?”  Brian, in turn, kindly responded with another blog post, in which he lays out an anecdotal argument that tries to justify his claim.  Unfortunately, there’s still noting there that actually supports his original claim.

Brian’s opening line in his reply to my question reads “I don’t know where you’re from, but in the U.S.A., overt harassment of cyclists is a fact of life.”  This is one of those vacuously true(-ish) statements that provides no real information.  It’s like saying “I don’t know where you’re from, but in Florida, alligators are a fact of life.”  They’re there, you can see them, on occasion one even shows up in your yard or your pool.  Yet not everyone experiences a gator encounter, some see them more than others, and while they can be dangerous, even fatal, generally speaking it happens less often than the anecdotal evidence would seem to indicate, and you’re still more likely to be killed by your shower.

But anecdotal evidence is all that Brian has to offer in this response.  Nowhere in there does he even come close to objectively defending his outrageous claim from the article on Copenagenize.  Well, if he wants anecdotal evidence I suppose I can offer mine to him as well and let him factor it in as he sees fit.

I have been cycling on a regular basis for about six years now, and commuting regularly on my bike for about five of those years.  In all of that time, I have been overtly harassed a total of three times: once in Albuquerque where a car full of teens was honking their horn behind me then yelled something unintelligible as they passed; once here in the D/FW area which I wrote about here, and one earlier this month by a group of teens in Abbeville, Louisiana while I was out riding in the Tour du Rouge.  Of course, in that time, I’ve also been hooted at (in a good way) by women in cars twice, and given thumbs-up, words of encouragement, or other positive comments dozens of times.  And on top of that I’ve been passed by easily tens of thousands of cars who registered no opinion whatsoever on the subject (go read David Alison’s blog post again, I’ll wait).  And just for good measure, I’ll add that I’ve been honked at, yelled at, and given the finger far more times while driving my car than riding my bike.

If I were to form an opinion of drivers’ opinions of cyclists from this it would be that drivers are overwhelmingly neutral towards cyclists, with a small fraction pro-cyclist, and a smaller fraction still anti-cyclist.  And while I guess this is the way things would trend in a study, I sure as hell wouldn’t present my assumption as an objective truth without some sound study or set of studies backing it.  And that’s what I’m asking of Brian (and really everyone else out there).

Anyway, I don’t want this to sound like I’m disagreeing with everything Brian has to say, he does have some good points.  I think it would be helpful to show cycling in a more high-status, sexier manner, and I do think that it would help to raise the image of cycling (though again, I’d guess it would go from overwhelmingly neutral to slightly positive and hopefully, later, positive).  But I also agree with Mikael that it should be portrayed as quicker and easier than driving (which it can be, but is far from always being — again, a different screed).

Of course I disagree with both of them in that I feel that portraying cycling as fun is also very important.  Really, any marketing campaign (or collection of campaigns) needs to be multifaceted.  Look at beer commercials or car commercials, different commercials capture different aspects of their products.  Beer is fun, beer attracts sexy women and good looking men, beer is cold and refreshing, beer can be upscale, beer can reflect the values of the working man, beer is consumed by the world’s most interesting man and the crowds that hang out with him.  Cars on the other hand are fun to drive, and they attract sexy women and good looking men, and they are of great utility, and they are luxurious, and they are sporty, and they allow you to get away from it all, and they are tough, and they are safe. Cars are what get you to and from the party (where there will no doubt be beer), and get the kids to and from school, and they tow your boat, carry your groceries, haul your tools, and now with the  spread of hybrid cars, they help you save the environment.  Is there any reason that bikes can’t be all of that?  OK, OK, they have a much smaller advertising budget, but still, multiple views can be presented.

Anyway, before I drift too far off of the core topic, I want to address Brian’s closing bit of his response to me: “I’d love to see a decent psychologist do a study of this stuff, but as far as I know it’s never been done. Dave Horton is doing some interesting work, though. And I’ll bet you a new bike that that when that study does happen, it supports my conjecture. Whaddaya say, sport?”

Well, Brian, I honestly don’t know what conjecture you’re talking about here, so you’d really have to clarify, but if you’re stating that you think a properly constructed, unbiased study would show that anywhere close to 95% of Americans think that riding a bike to work marks you as a freak and a loser, then I’d be more than willing to put up the donation of a Kona Africabike or similar to some charity to be distributed to a worthy recipient, and I have a lot of things that my money could be better spent on than buying a new bike for someone else.

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