Figuring it out

Michel Claessens
Michel ClaessensEditor-in-chief

A decisive moment in the recent French presidential election campaign was the television duel on 2 May 2007. Ségolène Royal challenges Nicholas Sarkozy: “You defend nuclear energy, but you don’t even know how much (of electricity consumption in France) it represents.” “Yes, I do,” replies Sarkozy. “Half of our electricity is nuclear-produced.” “No,” retorts his opponent, “17 % of our electricity is nuclear.” The first surprise of seeing both presidential hopefuls poles apart on the fundamental statistics of France’s nuclear energy capacity was followed by a second: both were way out! In France, 78 % of all electricity and 17 % of all energy consumption (all fuels and uses combined) are of nuclear origin.

Nicholas Sarkozy split the difference, Ségolène Royale had the right figure but the wrong definition. Citizens were left to muse ironically that these subjects are so complex that even presidential candidates get mixed up! But the story also reveals the problem of trading statistics in our media-dominated societies. In political and social debates on technical scientific topics the “killer” argument is increasingly a statistical “fact”, often cited out of context and without reference to what exactly is being measured. How can the public, bombarded by a welter of supposedly scientifically supported but varying statistics, distinguish the true from the false or manipulated? The answer is probably that it can’t.

The citizen is defenceless against the figures churned out by the growing number of multimedia channels in a society in which the speed of information seems more important than its accuracy. Except perhaps in the case mentioned above. By the following morning, the whole of the press had checked the facts and was explaining the mistakes the two candidates had made in the big debate. For once the French were over-informed about nuclear energy’s true share of their electricity consumption.