Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Polls

Your voice matters party material

Masquerading as breaking news this morning was the "bombshell" insight that apparently 29% of us believe the United States is headed in the right direction. This gem of intelligence is hauled out periodically, often on a slow news day, or when a pundit wants to probe a pet peeve.

As an all-purpose stimulant of meaningless commentary, a new twist this morning was the reframing as a positive statement. Usually, we'd be told 71% of us believe we're headed in the wrong direction. Maybe that was considered too tough to take with the morning coffee.

This "news" again occupied the serious conversation of ordinarily sensible pundits on a cable TV station for ages today--discussing the shocking wisdom, from an unimaginable variety of approaches. Not mentioned were the questionable ambiguities in the question to secure this statistic. We're no wiser about what anyone believes is "right" or "wrong," or even what these terms mean.

Other than feeling gloomy or launching speculations of one's own, what's anyone to think, say, or do about what? Probably the only certainty from this poll is that it helps to shore up existing prejudices.

Regrettably, even missing now from the media presentation of poll results most of the time are the sample size, margin of error, and date the poll was conducted. But with this poll so flawed, contextual facts don't really matter.

The hazards of opinion polling affect us all in too many ways to outline briefly. But putting aside any feeling that polls are facts is a safe bet. In his unique way, Peter Cook shared a not-so-gentle warning about the potential hazard of polls as long ago as 1970--in the film, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer [4 minute YouTube, here].

What matters in this silly season of electioneering is to be wary of polls--along with making a plan to vote in the one important poll, when you can.

2 comments:

Randal Marlin said...

The best advice I have come across for evaluating the significance of polls is to find out what the question was, and then ask how you would answer it.
For example: "How many people in America are 'thinking people'."? To my mind, the answer depends on how high the bar is for what constitutes a thinking person. My answer could be 10% or 90%.

I was reminded of this when I came across a quote supposedly by Adlai Stevenson, who lost an election to Dwight Eisenhower back in the mid-1950s.
Stevenson was considered an egghead, while Eisenhower was more in touch with the common people.

The story is that when Adlai Stevenson was on the campaign trail in 1956 a voice called out from the crowd: "Every thinking person in America will be voting for you!"
Stevenson replied, "I'm afraid that won't do. I need a majority."

Rod said...

Well put, Randal. As some thinking people might be tempted to say, "Q.E.D.!"