That YouGov parlour game is wrong. This annoys me.

November 19th, 2014 by Ben Goldacre in bad science | 93 Comments »

YouGov have produced a fun, popular new parlour game. You give the site the name of a celebrity, author, TV show, pet, activity, or anything; and it gives you a lot more information in return. Essentially: “other things that such a person typically does and likes”. So, the “favourite dishes” of people who read Ben Goldacre books are Vegetarian Thali, Gravlax (whatever that is), and Pork Gyoza. Fans of comedian Richard Herring report that their favourite TV show is Stewart Lee (insensitive, given the *bitter* rivalry). Newsnight profiled their viewers at the end of their show on Tuesday (self-absorbed and listen to New Order). It’s fun to play around with.

But these statistics have been misinterpreted, because they have been mis-presented by YouGov.

Thali, Gravlax (whatever that is) and Gyoza aren’t the favourite dishes of Ben Goldacre readers: they’re the dishes that most differentiate Ben Goldacre readers from everyone else, the ones that are peculiarly preferred by readers of Ben Goldacre. They are the dishes where the reported preferences of readers of Ben Goldacre are most unlike those of non-Ben-Goldacre-readers.

To make it clearer, here’s an example of what the data might look like:


                         Favourite food of…..

    Ben Goldacre readers     Everyone else

  1. Chocolate                         1. Chocolate
  2. Chips                                2. Chips
  3. Ice Cream                        3. Ice cream
  4. Thali                                 4. Burgers
  5. Burgers                            5. Crisps
  6. Gravlax (wtf?)                  6. Doughnuts
  7. Crisps                               7. Sandwiches
  8. Gyoza                               8. Bum juice.
  9. Doughnuts                        9. Etc.


In this data your favourite foods – as a Ben Goldacre reader – are Chocolate, Chips, and Ice Cream, the same as any other sane person. (In fact, although it might sound soppy, one question this dataset could answer best is how similar we all are). But YouGov would say your favourite foods are Thali, Gravlax (
– whatever the hell that is – and Gyoza.

That’s kind of basically wrong.

I don’t know why this has annoyed me, but it really has.

[Update: YouGov have changed the wording on their site.]

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

93 Responses

  1. jfgi said,

    November 22, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Gravlax is a kind of smoked salmon from the Nordic region. Maybe your fans shop in IKEA?

  2. Jonas Vlachos said,

    November 22, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    “Gravlax” is Swedish for cured salmon.

  3. crf said,

    November 22, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Gravlax=Pickled Herring. (You can buy it at Ikea with that name.)

  4. Kamran said,

    November 22, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    It’s annoyed you because fighting misrepresentation in data is basically your life’s work! 🙂

  5. Guybrush said,

    November 22, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Glad to see your “disproportionate anality” over trivial issues is still alive and well amongst all your serious big data stuff!

  6. Sili said,

    November 23, 2014 at 7:36 am

    I’m perfectly familiar with grav(ad) laks (yum!), but what the hell are gyoza and thali?

  7. ed said,

    November 24, 2014 at 7:12 am

    At the top of the page on the yougov profiler it clearly states; Now Showing: What differentiates people who like ben goldacre from their comparison set.

  8. Stuart said,

    November 24, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    I suspect it annoys you because it is essentially a lie in the first place; and in the second place it is peddled by an organisation that seeks to reflect (and influence?) public opinion.

  9. Kevin McKegney said,

    November 24, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    The minor ‘annoynance’ rants are good practice, which keep you in trim for the really big, importanrt ones.

    Gravlax….? I’ve no idea either.

    My real concern is that there is a foodstuff out there called, Bum juice??

  10. Luke said,

    November 25, 2014 at 1:09 pm

    Thali, gravlax and gyoza dumplings *are* all delicious.

  11. HungryHobo said,

    November 25, 2014 at 6:57 pm

    Did you consider putting Gravlax into the profiler?

    It’s a raw fish dish most popular with affluent older female guardian readers in the greater london area.

    They’re also likely to work in education.

    Given the smallish numbers I wouldn’t be surprised if a dozen people working in an educational institution who happen to be fans of yours and occasionally go somewhere which serves really good Gravlax could cause that bump.

    Looking at google maps Gravlax only gets a few hits though some appear to be fairly close to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine…. you may be more popular at work than you think.

  12. Popup said,

    November 26, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Gravlax is a Nordic delicacy. A lightly cured salmon, typically served with a dill and mustard sauce on toast.

    Unlike those other Nordic speciality fish products (lutfisk, hakarl, surströmming), Gravlax is actually nice-tasting and has enjoyed a success abroad.

    / A proud Swede

  13. Jon Jones said,

    November 26, 2014 at 8:18 am

    Gravlax is basically really thick cut salmon (possibly with those herb things)

  14. Blu Dot said,

    November 28, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    My Favourite food is also chocolate

  15. Peter said,

    November 28, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    Gravlax looks good – though I didn’t know what it was until today. I’ll definitely try some.


  16. Anssi said,

    November 29, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    Gravlax (the name is Swedish)is the Nordic equivalent to sashimi: Raw fillet of salmon marinated in salt and spices. Good, but must be made from absolutely fresh ingreients.

  17. Jack Philipsn said,

    November 30, 2014 at 4:36 pm

    Gravlax is a slice of raw salmon, cured in sugar, salt, and dill. I’d never heard of it either.

  18. Stephen said,

    December 1, 2014 at 5:49 pm

    Yes, it mildly annoyed me too. There’s a thread on cyclechat ( predicated on the thesis that cyclists are lefties.

    Gravlax = gravad lax = (raw) salmon cured in salt, sugar and dill, and usually served with a mustardy sauce. Often seen on continental hotel breakfast tables next to the smoked salmon.

  19. andyj said,

    December 4, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Come on Ben, in the era of Google there’s no excuse for comments like “Gravlax (whatever the hell that is)”. It take seconds to find out!

  20. K. Schneider said,

    December 4, 2014 at 7:03 pm

    Take slices of raw salmon, spiced with salt, sugar, aneth, and bury it all together in a hole in the sand above the line of high tide (traditionally, not in the factory). After some time, depending on the process, you would obtain slightly fermented slices of salmon: Gravlax.

    Lax means salmon – in Scandinavia, and, similarly, “Lachs” in Germany. “Grav” means, well, yes: right from the grave. Tasts pretty good, anyway.

  21. Alistair Smith said,

    December 5, 2014 at 7:22 am

    Really interesting blog. Especially as a colleague tried to use Yougov’s data in a presentation the other day to suggest how we think about different groups of people!

    And I suspect they mean Gravadlax, you know, posh salmon.

  22. justin g said,

    December 5, 2014 at 7:33 am

    I think it’s some kind of smoked salmon. Think lox and bagels.

  23. gillian said,

    December 12, 2014 at 8:22 pm

    gravlax is salmon sushi!

  24. Ettelb said,

    December 13, 2014 at 11:56 pm

    Grevlax is basically goose fat on toast.
    It’s very popular in east European Jewish communities.

  25. Jo said,

    December 19, 2014 at 2:50 am

    This has annoyed me too, I spent a good while being confused about how specific the ‘likes’ seemed (surely everyone mainly just likes sitting about and eating cakes) and just presumed it was based on a stupidly small sample meaning it threw up a load of niche ‘likes’.

    Talking of throwing up, I ate some gravlax once, ordered it without knowing what it was. I’m a vegetarian. It was not.

  26. Rory said,

    December 20, 2014 at 9:58 am

    I believe the details of what data the yougov site is displaying within this app are described in reasonable detail within their FAQs. Therefore, I’m not sure it’s fair to say they have done anything inappropriate.

  27. Quidam said,

    January 13, 2015 at 4:14 am

    Gravlax – whatever the hell that is

    Gravlax -> Grav lax > ‘buried salmon’

    Originally this was salmon buried above the high water mark in salty sand to cure. Now its cured with a generous coating of sugar, salt and dill.

    It’s easy to make and delicious, you can try it at the Ikea cafeteria.

  28. Anna Langton said,

    January 14, 2015 at 5:26 pm


    Probably gravadlax, which is smoked salmon with dill sauce. It’s a swedish dish.

    You probably know this.

  29. peter said,

    January 15, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Gravlax comes up on a search, I don’t know wtf the wtfs are for I see it on offer in IKEA restaurants called gravadlax. Thanks to google I also know now that Gyosa = Jiaozi (which my wife makes). Certainly preferable to bum juice whatever that is. But I take your point on peculiarities versus favourites. It is nice to have the distinction made clear, I am wiser now. Thanks.

  30. Gitte Edelman said,

    January 16, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    ‘Gravlax’ is the other, proper, name for ‘gravad lax’.
    The writing ‘gravadlax’ that you often see is wrong.
    ‘Lax’ means salmon, and ‘gravad’ means the salmon has been cured in a certain way. You could call it ‘cured salmon’ (but hardly ‘curedsalmon’) in English.
    In Swedish you have the additional option of making a compound by merging the words into ‘gravlax’. That is probably the most common name for ‘gravad lax’ these days.

  31. Marianne Eilenberger said,

    January 18, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Dear Ben Goldacre

    Gravlax is a nordic dish.It is salmon cold cured with salt and sugar. Lax is the swedish word for salmon and gravad means cured – we danes calls i Gravad Laks. It tastes a lot like smoked salmon, but it feels less fatty. It is quite delicious and can be bought in any danish supermarket. It is usually eaten as a starter or simply on buttered bread for lunch.

    Should you now feel desperate to try this scandinavian contribution to gastronomy, but being less keen on visiting the bleak nordic winter, Jamie Oliver can help you:

    (If you do visit Scandinavia – choose Denmark. We are the nicest of the bunch and where else can you pay two month wages for the privilege of eating live ants in a Michelinstar restaurant?)

    That a large number of your fans like Gravlax might be because you have a lot of scandinavian among them.

    I know I am one.

    Thank you for your blog – an oasis of reason in a desert of ignorance.


  32. Cecilia Viklund said,

    January 20, 2015 at 8:40 pm

    Gravlax is Swedish, but is more correctly called gravad lax. It’s salmon that has been pickled. Delicious.

  33. stephen said,

    January 22, 2015 at 12:19 pm

    Gravlax: cold salmon covered in Herbs.
    Disgusting and definitely not in my top 3.

    more importantly, thoughts on this?

  34. H said,

    January 22, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Gravlax is like lox (salmon). It was very trendy for a brief moment in the 1980s.

  35. Robert said,

    January 27, 2015 at 10:53 am

    It’s annoying because (a) it is yet another distorting representation of statistical data (as if it wasn’t hard enough already to make people figure out what these figures really mean) (at least that’s my guess, but teaching stats to linguists as I do, I might not be the most unbiased source imaginable…), and (b) it is not but it certainly feels like a preparatory act for insulting generalisation.

    btw ‘gravlax’ would appear to be gravad laks, a scandinavian preparation of salmon.

  36. anonymous said,

    January 27, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    Gravlax is just salmon cured cold with salt and flavoured with some sugar, dill and pepper, sometimes also with other stuff, e.g. cognac. It’s nice, though cold smoked salmon is even better.
    I’m less familiar with gyoza and thali, TBH.

  37. Markus said,

    January 30, 2015 at 2:03 pm

    You are really playing up your ignorance of gravlax. It’s cured salmon with dill.

    I found the repeated shock and astonishment a bit off-putting from an author who is usually rigorous and makes his living by digging deeper into press reports on scientific subjects.

    Try it, it’s quite tasty! One of my favourites in fact…

  38. Gravid Lochs said,

    February 17, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Remarkable how many, many (many!) people felt the need to explain what “Gravlax” is, after it had already been explained before. Is this an example of “write before read”? Was there a delay that prevented people from seeing the previous comments? Was this an experiment by Dr Goldacre? Is it just a coincidence that salmon is mentioned in the same paragraph as Richard Herring?

  39. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 27, 2015 at 5:39 pm

    ha! i’ve been inundated with spam and the site log in has been so clunky i didn’t manage to check comments. must get the site sorted, but that’s either money or time..

  40. Ian said,

    April 1, 2015 at 12:15 am

    I hate gravlax/gravadlax (both of them, equally), have no idea what Gyoza is (or didn’t until I googled it) and have never knowingly eaten Thali.

    Do I need to leave this page?

  41. C Curtis-Rose said,

    April 8, 2015 at 3:55 pm

    Enough with the grav(ad)lax already, what are thali & gyoza? and why are their fans so much less willing to tell us?

  42. anonymous said,

    April 13, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    @Gravid Lochs, all, with the possible exception of the first half a dozen or so, of the comments were sitting in the approve queue until February…

  43. Ben Goldacre said,

    April 16, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    yeah sorry, overwhelmed with spam, will have to find a better spam monitor plugin…