by Tom Chivers
Wednesday, 3
June 2020

Did Dominic Cummings cause a lockdown breakdown?

by Tom Chivers
Dominic Cummings gestures to members of the media to observe social distancing guidelines outside his home in London. Credit: Getty

Did you know that 33% of Americans believe that there’s a government conspiracy to cover up the North Dakota crash?

This is especially surprising because there was no North Dakota crash. Scientists used it as a control question in a survey about conspiracy theories, to see how many people reflexively answered “yes” to questions about whether there’s a government conspiracy to cover something up. Here’s Scott Alexander’s take on that and what it means for things like the finding that 46% of Trump voters endorse the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.

But the point is: polling is difficult. Getting good, random samples is hard. People interpret poll questions in different ways. Some people misunderstand things or deliberately answer falsely to annoy people or are just strange (for instance, to return to Alexander: 4% of Americans surveyed said that lizardmen control the earth).

I mention this because a poll came out on Wednesday saying that 21% of Britons are following lockdown rules less strictly. Those who said they have been were asked why, and a third of them cited Dominic Cummings’s Durham excursion as a reason.

That sounds pretty bad. But I wanted to note a couple of reasons to be cautious.

First, I don’t think this lets us put much weight on the “Cummings has destroyed lockdown” hypothesis. One-third of 21% is 7%. That’s not far off the number of people who think lizards control America. We’re not talking about an army of people driving off to Barnard Castle to test their eyesight.

Second, it’s quite a complicated question to get at. After all, lockdown rules have actually become less strict. The fieldwork for this poll was done last Thursday, before the most recent latest raft of relaxations, but by then we were allowed to go and meet one friend outside and exercise outside as much as we liked — and Monday’s measures had already been announced, so people may have been preempting them.

So people will have understood the question as “Are you following the new rules less strictly than you followed the old rules?”, but others may have heard “Are you following the new rules, which are less strict than the old rules?” Chris Curtis of YouGov, who carried out the poll, agreed that this might explain some of the response.

People do seem to be going out more — the poll also asks people whether they’ve gone out and whether they plan to, and the responses are compared to earlier polls carried out on 14 May and 18 May. Since 14 May was another Thursday, that seems the fairest comparison, and the percentage who went out the day before went up from 63 to 67; people who went out for more than two hours went up from 17 to 24. But that doesn’t strike me as a huge change, especially since the rules had been relaxed.

Another interesting point is that 90% reported that they think other people are either not taking the crisis seriously enough, or are taking it appropriately seriously. Only 7% say they think others are taking it too seriously. Again, that doesn’t say to me “lockdown is collapsing”, although it does rather suggest that people are getting the impression that it’s collapsing.

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