Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Opinion Polls

People like to reference opinion polls because poll numbers carry with them a certain air of authority.

Of course an old idiom from my high school debate days was that statistics can prove anything. Place one foot in a bucket of ice water and another in the middle of a campfire and--statistically speaking--you should feel comfortable.

I also used to work for a company that conducted "research" through polling where I learned that more often than not opinion polls have leading questions to ensure that who ever is sponsoring the poll gets the results that they want.

For example, if Candidate A voted to approve the federal budget which includes funding for the National Endowment for the Arts which then gives money to a state arts council which in turn issues grants to a number of artists and one of those artists takes a picture, paints a painting or writes a novel that one person finds offensive you will see the following question in the survey:

"Candidate A voted to fund offensive art. Does this make you...

"A) More likely to vote for him

"B) Less likely to vote for him or

"C) Makes no difference to your vote."

Most people who get that question are going to pick B. It doesn't matter that the Candidate has no say in how the NEA, a state arts council or even an individual artist spends their money. The question isn't designed to rate public opinion, it's designed to manipulate it.

We see all these poll results on healthcare but we never see the questions that are being asked.

Do the polls that say Americans are against healthcare reform ask specific unbiased questions like:

"Are you in favor of a public insurance option?

"A) Yes. B) No. C.) I'm not sure"

or do they include a rhetorical label and skew the question to read:

"President Obama wants to put a government official between you and your doctor with a socialist government-run healthcare system like they have in countries like Britain and Canada. Do you support this?

"A) Yes, government-run healthcare is fine by me.

"B) No, I'm a patriot who believes in Capitalism.

"C) I don't know but it sure sounds scary."

The possible answers to the biased survey are exaggerations but the style of the question is typical of the surveys I conducted and I hated it because I knew that the people I was interviewing weren't being asked their opinion, they were being manipulated.

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