Thursday, September 18, 2008

Polls, a Good Cartoon and Some Recommended Reading

This nation seems to me to be poll crazy. I swear we take polls about what to have for breakfast. The media gives us minute to minute reports about what "we" are allegedly thinking and who is where in our hearts and minds. It's exhausting following them. It's irritating listening to them and I think they are questionably accurate in any case.

One thing that skews the value of polls these days is that pollsters call people with landlines. That means they talk to old farts like me who haven't joined the cell phone age. A large segment of the population no longer uses land lines which means polls only reach a diminishing portion of the populace and a portion which is not particularly reflective of the whole. So that's the first major flaw validity of polls as a way to understand what's happening in the country.

I haven't taken any political polls lately, but I've been polled on a few other things. I can tell you that the nature of the questions and the phrasing of them often leaves little room for my actual opinion on a subject to muddy up the waters of what the pollsters want to hear. Natural gas companies are invading my part of New York State, buying up and ravaging the land. This brings money to some pretty impoverished people and high paying jobs for some where jobs have been extremely scarce. I'm against having the gas companies tear up this pristine country, but I'm sure that's not the impression that the poll took away... although I stated it very clearly. It was a while ago so I can't remember many of the specific idiotic and badly worded questions. One that stuck with me though was a question about Company X. Did I have any negative opinions of them. I had never heard of them, so no, I didn't. There was no not applicable response. That's a petty example.

I take polls on line for Harris and a couple of other companies. These polls too often ask questions which must be answered but which have no response available that actually reflects my true feelings. Which do you hate/love more - the color black or the color white - doesn't offer a reflection of any kind of truth since I don't love or hate either and/or I love different things about each. Which matters more - the economy or the war? Well both matter and the choice is a stupid and ultimately meaningless one. They matter for different reasons and the one is tied to the other in many ways. Or take a question like this one: How do you feel about the effectiveness of the Democratic majority. Well, I'm disappointed in Congress. In defense of the Democrats, though, truth is that they have a majority in name only. In the House where they actually DO have a majority, they have accomplished quite a lot. Unfortunately they don't actually have a real majority in the Senate so they haven't been able to get anything past the Republican deadlocks there.

Huffington Post has been writing on this subject for a while and this article contains some good information (not all that well presented) on the statistical validity of what is offered up to us on a daily and hourly basis. Worth looking at.

Some polls can be fixed. A computer savvy friend of mine pointed out that AOL's polls are open to cheating. All you have to do is clear your cookies and you can vote again. I checked out his claim and it proved to be true.

Then there's the subjective way in which the polls are reported by the many in the media. When Obama leads, it's reported that it's surprising that his lead isn't bigger. When McCain is leading, it's reported as an awesome accomplishment. Hmmm. McCain has plenty of money. He's white,. He's a war hero. He has Sarah Palin, he's following an incumbent president (traditionally a good thing): Why doesn't HE have a 20 point lead? Not a question I've heard asked very often.

The most damaging thing about polls in my opinion is that they are reported as though they are some kind of gospel of reality when they are at best expensive and unreliable statistical horoscopes. Because of the media's treatment of them as predictive truth, however, they take on a level of importance that can actually skew the results of the race.

Remember these things when someone announces some poll result.

  • We don't know what has been asked.
  • We don't how the questions have been framed. (Questions can be badly written or intentionally phrased to produce a distorted answer.)
  • We don't know (really) who has asked the questions.
  • We don't know who has answered the questions.

I think we would all do ourselves and our nation great service if we stopped answering polls and more importantly if we stopped paying attention to them as though they were some kind of map to the truth. They aren't.

Oddly, the only polls in disfavor these days are the ones we SHOULD pay attention to. Those are the exit polls at our polling places. Those are historically very accurate. The discrepancy in that data after the last election - distorted again by the media - was a red flag that the vote had been tampered with in places like Ohio and other states. In our present psycho nation, we listen to the horoscope polls and ignore the factual ones.

I guess I think the other thing we might consider doing is paying less attention to the tv and radio media and reading and researching on our own. Here are some interesting columns I've read recently that I highly recommend:

In Praise of Sarah Palin by Robert J. Elisberg

Protecting America's Families from McCain's Broken Health Care Plan by Rocky Delgadillo

Putting the Past Behind Us: A New Energy Future for America by Rep. Louise Slaughter

Moo by Timothy Egan

The Delicate Subject of John McCain's Marbles by Chris Kelly

The Big Whisper: What's Up with John McCain

Women Leaders Hold Press Conference on the Presidential Election by Marcia G. Yerman

Country First (Or How the Media loves a Lipsticked Rumsfeld) by Sean Penn

A Nation of Village Idiots by James Moore

These aren't necessarily the best of what's available to read, but they are some of the articles I ran across this morning.

Not going to reread this. Hope it makes sense.


Melli said...

And people wonder HOW I can just NOT watch television... well... you just answered that in your first paragraph! I avoid headline news too... in the paper or anywhere else.
It's all garbage. All it does is confuse the issues.

I came by to get this weeks Wordzzle words. I had my story half written last week when Saturday snuck up on me. Alas, I didn't make it! I'm going to give it another try this week! If I can have it done before Friday night I'll be good. The kids come back on Saturday!!! LOL!

Carletta said...

Hey Raven,
I so loved this post!
I have a landline as well as my cell and in all my years have never been polled on anything.
Your points for poll results are right on.
I always get a kick out of those polls that say 'of women polled' - I want to know what women are supposedly representing me - cause they invariably DON'T!

Travis Cody said...

I've never been polled. I suspect it's because I have always lived in liberal communities. It would seem that nobody wants to poll a community full of liberals.

Dianne said...

Love the cartoon!

Amazing how Johnny Mac can spin! The old bat must be dizzier than his VP selection by now.

I'm in market research. We have an insider saying - "Torture the data long enough and it will tell you what you want to hear"

ANYTHING can be presented as fact if you run the numbers enough and attach stat models and demographic weights and blah-blah-blah!!!!

As Craig Ferguson said (see Bailey's Buddy for the video - he posted it last week) "the only poll that should count is the one on November 4"