Unfounded claims hurt

Unfounded claims hurt

As engineers, we are often told how important it is to cite references in technical reports. Whenever we present data, we have to tell the reader exactly where we got that piece of information from. That may seem like a chore - especially late at night when you're completing a school assignment - but recently I was reminded of why we have to cite our sources.

An article in the Washington Post ranked Hong Kong as the most racist place in the world. Soon, other newspapers around the world started reporting this finding.

The information was based on a series of surveys done from 2005 to 2008. It focused on a single question: Who would or would not people want to have as their neighbours? The set answers included drunks, gays and immigrants. The result: more than a whopping 71 per cent of Hong Kong people said they would not want people of a different race as their neighbours.

Yet anyone who has lived in this cosmopolitan city knows how unreasonable the idea is that most locals are hopelessly racist. Here's the point: both mainlanders and Britons, the two groups of people who have most influenced Hong Kong's culture, came out as tolerant in the survey.

I decided to check out the original data myself. What I found was as shocking as it was revealing. It all came down to an error in translation: the survey was translated into Cantonese from the original English, but the set responses had been mixed up. The responses 1. "Willing" and 2. "Not willing" - meaning an interviewee would be willing or not willing to live with a certain category of neighbour - were switched.

In other words, Answers 1 and 2 to the question were mixed up in the Cantonese version. So it would appear that 71 per cent of Hong Kong people would be "willing" and not "unwilling" to have a neighbour of a different race, not the other way around, as reported.

Few people seem to have noticed this blunder. Yet a similar translational error was discovered for the Bangladesh portion of the survey as well. One wonders how many other mistakes have been made without anybody noticing.

This is an apt demonstration of the danger of trusting data without checking the original sources. You have to wonder how closely journalists have looked at the survey before taking its "findings" at face value and publishing them.

Yet the damage has been done. Thanks to the poor use of a flawed original source, Hongkongers have been tarred as out-and-out racists.



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1 comment

lala rivers


oh,please.Since you're white you probably hardly ever received discrimination in Hong Kong. Its a completely different case for ethnic minorities. Regardless of the survey, Hong Kong is a racist city and I have experienced it firsthand, so I do not think the whole Hong Kong population is racist, mos