The Problem with Polling

In watching Real Time with Bill Maher last week, I’m realizing that polling of public opinion is inherently flawed.

In a discussion of the first enforcement of Obama’s health care reform this week–not allowing insurance companies to drop coverage for children with pre-existing conditions–one of the members of the panel, Andrew Breitbart, editor of The Drudge Report, threw out a poll number in making one of his points: “Obamacare was shoved down [everyone’s] throats… 70% of Americans were against Obamacare.”

This follows a string of other poll numbers that makes me wondering to whom they are asking these questions. I’ve yet to get a phone call or an email asking my opinion on anything. And, though I realize it is a logical fallacy to say what I’m about to, the majority of people I know were in favor of “Obamacare.” When a poll comes out that says that 20% of Americans still believe that Obama is a Muslim, despite all of the evidence otherwise, I wonder how the numbers would have turned out if different people, maybe people with some common sense who take a few moments out of the day to think for themselves.

But the biggest problem I see with the poll numbers is that so many people use the numbers as undeniable truth. When Breitbart threw the statistic that 70% of Americans were against health care reform, it was as if he had personally gone out and asked all 300 million or so people in the United States, and had done the necessary calculations do determine that, yes, it was exactly 70% of Americans that were against “Obamacare.”

Never mind that this sort of polling only does a random sampling of Americans. And never mind that public opinion of something can change as more information is gathered and processed. And never mind that, even within the random sampling, there is always a margin of error. The “70%” that Breitbart is talking about could really be 72%, which would be in his favor, or possibly 68%, which would be in the favor of everyone that can’t afford health coverage that now can under this reform.

70% is 70%, always and forever, the Gospel according to Pew.

It’s truly upsetting to me that people can spew out poll numbers without really knowing the context. Anyone who has ever taken a class that covered the basics of how to avoid bias know that there are several ways to state percentages: the majority or the minority. Each perspective puts people in a different mindset: “70% of Americans are against Obamacare” makes it seem like a bad thing, whereas “30% of Americans support health care reform” makes it seem like something positive that needs more support.

Even the percentage is completely wrong. In every study that I’ve ever seen or read about, there is never a clear cut “do you or don’t you” approach to responding to polls. There is always a spectrum, a scale of one to five, or one to ten, of how much you agree or disagree with a statement. Which means, how does that 70% break down? Are 50% strongly against, and the other 20% simply against? Could 10% be strongly against, 15% against, and 25% slightly against? Does the 70% include anyone who didn’t have an opinion either way?

Bottom line is, all polls have context. If you don’t know the context of the poll numbers, or even if you don’t consider the source, you are unwittingly spreading false information.

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