Council made a mistake in conducting a survey about Pipe Man ~ Opinion

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Hugh Mackenzie
Huntsville Doppler

Beware of Surveys

Well, Pipe Man has gone, at least for now. I must admit, as I crossed the swing bridge on Friday and looked up the river, I missed him. It seemed to leave an empty space there.

I couldn’t help thinking that Pipe Man has given us quite a ride. In the short time he was with us on the Muskoka River he has brought Huntsville national attention and created more controversy and more debate than many of the more substantive issues facing our community in the past decade. The irony that Pipe Man has, in some ways, generated more passion and more attention than our need to keep an acute-care hospital in Huntsville has not escaped me.

To me, this whole issue was a public relations disaster from the outset. It has not only been blown out of proportion, but it has had the opposite effect from that which was intended. It has reflected badly on Council, on the donor and on the artist who created Pipe Man. In some ways it has shown a nasty underbelly of Huntsville. Many of the comments were personal and just plain mean.

As a result, people like Jan Nyquist, the owner of Pipefusion in Huntsville, have been vilified where they should have been praised. He did nothing wrong. He, and his father and mother before him, have made enormous contributions to the economic and cultural well-being of Huntsville for many decades. His donation of the Pipe Man to Huntsville was well intended; a goodwill gesture to a community that meant a great deal to his family.

Sadly, the same can be said for Beverley Hawksley, a highly regarded local artist who created Pipe Man. Art, especially good art, is often controversial. It takes time to grow on you. Many artists, now world renowned, were rebuffed when their works were first displayed.

If blame is to be laid in this matter, it must rest with Huntsville Council. Perhaps there should have been more public consultation when the offer to donate Pipe Man was made. The reality, however, is that it would not have meant much. Pipe Man out of the water was not really an issue. It was only when he was in place that it became one. By then, it was too late.

Council’s mistake, in my view, was in conducting a public survey once the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan.  They made the decision to approve Pipe Man in the first place and they should have either stuck to their guns or acknowledged they had made a mistake and dealt with it then and there. They are, after all, elected to make the hard decisions. The survey simply perpetuated negative comments.

I am not a great fan of surveys. For one thing, they are not polls and they are not scientific. In my experience, people are more inclined to respond to a survey if they are against something than if they are for it. I was not surprised, therefore, that when asked in the survey whether or not they supported the Pipe Man, most people responded with a “No”.

The survey results from about 1300 people do not reflect the view of what is likely the vast majority of Huntsville residents, who just don’t give a damn one way or the other, or those who support Pipe Man but cannot bother to fill out a survey.  The survey simply shows that about 1200 people are against it.

Having conducted the survey, however, Council was between a rock and a hard place. They ignore it at their peril, however unscientific the survey might have been in determining the view of the entire community. Pipe Man was doomed the minute the survey hit the internet and, in the long run, I am not sure that Huntsville is better for it.

Of course, another survey has also recently been completed. This one in relation to hospital care. That one really concerns me. For one thing, the survey did not provide an option for two fully acute-care hospitals in Muskoka. One of the options however, may have led people to believe that is what they were supporting. Should the results of that survey, which have not yet been revealed, be used to influence a final recommendation for the delivery of acute-care services in Muskoka, it will not have accurately reflected the views of many of those who completed it. That is something we should worry about.

Most surveys, in my view, are not an effective tool in accurately determining public opinion. They can be misleading and they can be manipulated. We are best to take them with a large grain of salt.

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13 Comments

  1. Agree totally. Filled out both sureys and with each survey, I did not feel I was able to express my true feelings regarding both issues.

  2. Hugh Mackenzie – I value your opinion and you have made many good points except regarding the value of Surveys.
    Surveys CAN be an extremely useful tool if professionally applied and worded objectively without bias and for data collection. There are actually several scholarly articles about this including best practice guidelines. Unfortunately “unbiased” / “impartial” is not something those that are seeking public opinion are interested in. Therefore as we have all noted, the concept of surveys utilized in Huntsville whether it be the Pipeman or … were not developed for impartial professional accurate data collection. And we should be incredibly concerned that persons in positions to make significant decisions affecting our communities appear to either lack the knowledge and education or blatantly have no real interest or respect for public opinion by conducting impartial professional surveys. Just saying….
    https://academic.oup.com/intqhc/article/15/3/261/1856193/Good-practice-in-the-conduct-and-reporting-of

  3. Such a shame your community couldn’t get its act together. As an outsider, I was fascinated by the piece when I first saw it from the bridge. Later, when enjoying dinner and a beer from a nearby establishment, I became truly enamored by it. I’m sorry it won’t be there to greet me when I return next year and each year thereafter. A great opportunity missed for Huntsville to show itself as a community prepared to be truly special.

  4. Here’s my take. It was a bad decision in the first place. The motives were good by all concerned, but the placement spoiled a beloved view of a lovely harbour (this is my view on it being there). This is beside the point at this moment. A survey was taken, as a proxy for a democratic decision by the people of this community. The majority chose to remove it [and it’s disingenuous to say that only 1200 opposed it – intimating that everyone else liked it – c’mon, we elect officials by the majority of those that cast a vote and don’t say that everyone else who didn’t vote for the person-elect did not want them. Hugh, don’t embarrass yourself with that argument].
    So – great motives all around – just bad judgment on the placement. Get over it. Let’s put Pipe Man where he adds to the view, and thank the donors and artist. Where that would be should be part of a gathering of ideas and then a survey to see where the majority of people want it. It’s a good town story and should continue, just let’s not polarize people with wild criticism and bad argument.

  5. Hugh’s opinion that the survey wasn’t reflecting the views of those in favor of the plastic pipe are his own, not based in fact, and clearly he was in favor of keeping the billboard. The survey was public and if people wanted to keep it they had an equal opportunity to voice their view. Remember how election’s work, the majority wins and if you don’t like the result and didn’t vote, then suck it up and live with it. Our council is elected true enough, but that doesn’t give them an across-the-board right to make every single decision for the community without any right of the voters to voice opinion. This was a so called art installation not a municipal works project and it carried log term financial liability with it. Sorry Hugh but you expressed your opinion, but not everyone need agree with you.

  6. Craig Nakamoto on

    I agree completely. In my opinion, the biggest problem with this survey was that the audience was chosen by the people. It would have been a far truer result if a subset of the population had been required to fill it out (I guess like a poll). In this way you would get a better understanding of who liked it, who didn’t like it, and who didn’t care. As it stands, I think Hugh is correct in that all we can conclude is that a lot of the people that didn’t like Pipe Man filled in the survey. What about the other 17,000 or so people? How can we say that the people have spoken? “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” – and sadly that is usually what happens.

  7. Verda Jane Hudel on

    I agree and understand Hugh’s thinking. Art is art and is often controversial.
    It is the anger and hateful remarks on Facebook especially that was and is an embarrassment to Huntsvillle. One after the other became more hateful and followed the trend of the ones that came before it to the point it was a contest to see which poster could be the nastiest. This was the followed by the survey attacked and filled in by many of the same Facebook posters. Some tried to fill in the survey multiple times to influence the negative outcome.
    There is no way the survey on the Pipeman could carry a valid sampling of the thinking of the people as the people were already too highly negatively influenced by that time.
    This actually resulted in a direct attack on Pipefusion, the artist and council.
    The whole incident is something to be ashamed of and has attached a negative stigma to the town. That stigma and running laughing joke …the Pipeman…will remain for years…
    In the meantime , important issues such as the hospital problem fell by the wayside. That result could mean people will die or physically suffer as not enough attention was paid to it.
    An example how damaging Facebook and other techie media can permanently harm.
    It’s a sad time in Huntsville.

  8. I was one of the 1200 people who took the time to complete the survey about Pipe Man . It was not that I disliked it , but the location was not to my liking . As I previously stated a few days ago this unique piece of art should be placed in Hunters Bay near the floating trail sections of the Great Trail . This would be an excellent way to recognize the artist and the donor . I totally disagree with Hugh . Everyone had a chance to voice their opinion . Democracy was served when 1200 people completed the survey with a resounding 90%+ against .

  9. Karen Wehrstein on

    Hugh — that the survey didn’t reflect the true opinion of the community is not an opinion, but a speculation about something factual, therefore requires evidence. It’s also not credible. Even though the survey participants were self-selected rather than randomly selected (as are participants of professional-level surveys), 1,200 out of 1,300 is an overwhelming majority, and 1,300 is an excellent participation rate for a voluntary survey in a municipality of 20,000, indicating strong feeling.

  10. I believe that your opinion is what this article is about more so than the survey/s. Just because you don’t like the outcome that doesn’t make it any better! I agree with the survey – not because I disliked the art of the location so much (although I must say I did not) but because this was a decision made to place that thing there without asking the local residents for opinions! The survey showed that the people disliked it with a passion! So be it! If that many people voiced their dislike via the survey, what are the chances that any other type of survey would yield different results? I only hope that something was learnt from this fiasco…

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