Why Polls Don’t Matter

by Dan on September 3, 2009


So why are posts on salary negotiation and analysis of miracles on the same blog?

If there’s a central purpose to what I write, it’s to help you break free and think for yourself.  This is why I intentionally keep any dogma to a scarce minimum.  If you liberate someone, and then tie him down to a new belief system, you haven’t done him any good.   I just try to open the door a little bit so you can choose whatever thought system makes sense for you instead of giving you my own spiritual or political bent.

Today we’re going to talk about polls, specifically why they’re almost useless in forming an opinion about something.

Let’s look at a recent poll that was on my Facebook today:  “Should Obama be allowed to speak nationwide to schoolchildren without parental consent?”

This seems like a no brainer to me, but I was amazed to see a huge majority on Facebook vote against it.  When I looked at the comments, it came clear why this was the case.

“Without parental consent” is an enormous buzzword for parents that can throw all logic out of the window.

A common response was: “As a parent, I retain the right to decide who talks to my kids and what they say.”

That’s what we like to believe, isn’t it?  The fact is that the school doesn’t need parental consent to teach math, or bring a fireman in for a presentation, or even to have the Principal speak his opinion to the school.  To have the President address schoolchildren seems pretty safe.  If I had children some years back and George W. Bush was speaking to them, my only concern would be them picking up some bad grammar.  However, that’s why they’re in school in the first place.

You might not be aware of this, but people who create polls know what will cause someone to vote against their own opinion. Yes, not just change their mind, but vote against their own opinion.

If the question was phrased, “Should every parent have to give their consent before a child hears a speech from the President in class?” I expect that there would be a much lower agreement.

Parents don’t need or want to have to approve of every little detail when they send their children to school, but once it’s explicit that their control is taken away, the results can be vicious.

Now, you might think that you need to be a clever pollster to come up with something like this, but the reality is you don’t even have to be that smart.  You just need a scientific plan.

Suppose you’re a polling company with an agenda, and you want to assure win for your preferred policy.  What do you do?

  1. Set up a basic question:  “Do you agree with this policy?”
  2. Make four variations of the question, such as “Do you want this policy to be put in place?” and even reversing the question with “Are you against this policy?”
  3. Make four variations of answers.  Examples could be “Yes/No” or “No/Yes.”  You could also have a scale from 1-5, with 5 being totally against, and 1 being totally in support of the policy.  Then make a variation where 1 is worst and 5 is best.
  4. Now you have at least 16 combinations of questions you can use.  Test each one out on a small sample size of 300 people.  Whichever question combination gives you the strongest answer in your favor; use that one for the “official” poll of thousands and thousands of people.

You see how easy polls are to skew?  You don’t even need an obviously bad question.  You just need the time and resources to test differences, however subtle and see what works for you.

Is this unethical?  If 15 variations of the poll all yield against you and you pick the one that doesn’t, then yes, it’s blatantly dishonest.

However, it’s usually not that clear cut.  Who’s to say that the poll variations that worked for you were the inaccurate ones?  If you originally create only one version of the poll, it’s likely you could have a sloppy result in either direction.

No matter how you do it, it’s a mess, and that’s why I say you shouldn’t take polls too seriously.

There are also professionals who run polls for the sole purpose of making the public bend to their own ideology.  If you see that 86% of people are worried that immigration is out of control, you might just join the masses as well, even if the “masses” were a bunch of people who didn’t understand the question.

Make your decisions based on rational information, and don’t worry what the public thinks.  You will never know anyway, so why pretend?

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