WWF Survey

Cambridge 2000 memos

September 2002

Many organisations send junk through the post, soliciting business. The WWF (UK) has sent out such a mass mailing trying to recruit new members. Only this is a begging letter with a difference. There is also included a "survey" , and the WWF assures us that "hundreds of thousands will be involved in this research exercise". Well this survey is not only unscientific (in that the sampled population is not random because only certain people respond) but its questions and allowed answers are extremely inept. As such, it should not be considered "research". Almost daily in the media one finds reports of such surveys, allegedly proving this, that or the other, but almost all are of dubious value. In time the WWF "survey" might find itself so featured.

For those who do not know, the WWF is mainly involved with "campaigning on behalf of the world's threatened species and habitat". A laudible goal, many would say. In their letter they briefly mention "fish, birds, plants and insects" but they only have photos of large cute mammals (otters, tigers, rhinos and gorillas) because they know full well that this is how to get a reaction from the British public. Not many people care about fish or birds (except to eat them) and even fewer people care about plants or insects. Not to mention bacteria or viruses.

Here are the WWF questions ("Q") and answers ("A") in full, with added commentary ("C").

Q1: Do you think it matters if a species becomes extinct?
A1: "Yes, a lot", "Yes, a little" or "Not really".
C1: What does this mean? Probably most people in the UK believe that sometimes it does matter if a species becomes extinct (e.g. some random mammal) and sometimes it does not matter (e.g. some random insect). Further the situation is even more ambiguous than that since it is the entire ecosystem, not specific individuals or species, which matters most. But WWF does not want to live in a gray world, they prefer black and white because that is what sells memberships. They are obviously pretty confident that nobody is going to answer "Not really", so in due course they can announce that their "research" shows that most of the UK believes that it matters (either a little or a lot) if a (presumably any) species becomes extinct. A cynical question through and through.

Q2: Tiger bones and rhino horn are used in traditional oriental medicine and the species are facing extinction as a result. Do you think their use is justified?
A2: "Yes", "Yes, because people are entitled to their own cultural beliefs", or "No".
C2: It is not clear why there are two "yes" answers since the first includes the second, but perhaps the WWF is trying to be "fair" by stressing the second. Needless to say it is easy for people living in the UK to criticise the practise of people living elsewhere in the world, there is nothing to suffer and plenty of righteous feelings to be had. Another question would be "Would you be willing to knock your house down to save some insect species from extinction?" Well most people would rate humans above other mammals and most people would rate mammals above other animals. So most people would rather save tigers than most other animals. But Europe has long ago killed off most of its wild big mammal population, including big cats. Bears are on the verge of extinction in western Europe. The UK today still allows the persecution of foxes for economic reasons. If rich Europeans want to save the tiger they should pay enough money to the affected countries and people to preserve sufficient wild habitat. Habitat is the real issue, not "traditional oriental medicine" (which is mostly just a euphemism for potions for sexually inadequate men).

Q3: Have you ever seen any of these in the British Isles?
A3: Otter, Badger, Kingfisher, Red Squirrel or Pine Marten.
C3: What is the point of this question? Most British people live in cities, and most of these species are not that common even in the countryside, as the WWF knows full well. Perhaps the point of the question is to make people who read the survey worried that they have not seen these species, so "something must be wrong" and "we must support the WWF in their crusade". If so, this is another cynical question.

Q4: WWF's work is concerned with a wide number of areas. What do you think are the priorities (rate them as "very important", "important" or "not very important")?
A4: "Threatened species", "Pollution and consumption", "Conservation of the British countryside", "Oceans and marine life", "Forests", "Depletion of the ozone layer and climate change".
C4: At last a question which looks honest. Except that the question does not say the priorities of whom, the WWF or the world. For the WWF this is a fair list of possible priorities. On the other hand, for world priorities they have missed out a few: clean water for all humans, sanitation for all humans, adequate food for all humans, education for all humans, decent jobs for all humans. The WWF does not have a remit for humans. It is also interesting that "pollution" gets lumped in with "consumption", obviously the latter is "bad".

Q5: Do you buy the following items?
A5: "Peat free garden grow bags", "Energy efficient appliances", "Recycled paper products", "Unleaded petrol", "Organically grown fruit or vegetables".
C5: The yes/no nature of the question makes the answers next to useless. Many people probably buy no grow bags, so they certainly do not buy peat free ones. Is the WWF going to interpret this as a good or a bad thing? Energy efficient appliances are generally more expensive, so generally rich people will buy them more than poor people. So the answer to this will indicate more how many rich people send in the survey than anything else. Most people probably do not know how much recycled paper they use at home and at work, because they do not buy most of it, and using some is hardly a great indication of anything. If you have a petrol car then there is not much choice these days except to use unleaded petrol. How is the WWF going to interpret an unticked box here, as someone who cycles or as someone who uses diesel or as someone who uses the train or what? As for organically grown fruit and vegetables, many people probably sometimes do and sometimes don't buy these, it's not all or nothing.

Q6: Do you try to recycle these items?
A6: Paper, Bottles and glass, Cans, Plastic.
C6: Not all local authorities recycle all the materials mentioned, so is the WWF going to interpret a negative answer as people not wanting to recycle or as people not being able to recycle? The chattering classes like recycling, because it is relatively easy to do, although it does much less for the environment than reusing materials or not using them in the first place. (The European Union is encouraging the silly idea that recycling is the most important thing by requiring 30% of waste to be recycled, so according to the EU, if you are poor and create half the waste of an average European but recycle nothing you are a sinner, and if you are rich and create double the waste of an average European but recycle a third you are a saint. Heck, if a rich person cannot fill their quota in a given week they might as well just order some newspapers to be delivered straight to their recycling bin.)

The survey then asks for your age and sex. Finally it asks if you want to receive yet more junk mail from the WWF. The most amusing thing they let you opt for is an MBNA credit card. So you can shop until you drop and still feel good that a small percentage of your purchases is going to save the world. Perhaps the WWF believes that "consumption" is not as bad as "pollution" after all.

Cambridge 2000 memos