Polls Aren’t Always Trustworthy

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


I don’t know many people who take opinion polling on policy issues as definitive in any way, but James Fishkin’s piece in the Boston Review on polling had two interesting anecdotes on just how unreliable polling can really be:

Sometimes the “opinions” reported in polls do not exist. Because respondents do not like to say “I don’t know,” they often pick an answer more or less at random. When George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati asked in surveys about the “Public Affairs Act of 1975,” the public offered opinions even though the act was fictional…

The second problem with conventional polling is that sometimes the responses to questions do not express real opinions but simply the first thing that comes to a respondent’s mind. This phenomenon was first described by the eminent political scientist Philip Converse. A National Election Studies panel was asked the same set of questions each year from 1956 to 1960. The questions included some low-salience items about such subjects as the government’s role in providing electric power.

Converse noticed that some of the respondents offered answers that seemed to vary almost randomly over the course of the panel. They cared so little about the issue that they could not even remember what they had said the previous year in order to try to be consistent. Converse concluded that significant numbers of people were simply answering randomly.

The Fishkin piece, by the way, advocates “deliberative polling,” a process which would gather a representative group of people together on some weekend retreat or other, poll them on an issue, let them talk it out, and then poll them again to see what they think after some thought, discussion, and, well, deliberation. It’s an interesting idea, but either way, the piece is a good reminder that people can say all sorts of things about various intricate policy programs, but that’s no indication as to what they really might think about something if they gave it some actual thought.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate