Polls Aren’t Always Trustworthy

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.


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.

WE'RE TAKING A SHORT BREAK…

from the big banner at the top of our pages asking for the donations that make Mother Jones' nonprofit journalism possible. But we still have upwards of $300,000 to raise by June 30, whether we get there is going to come down to the wire, and we can't afford to come up short.

If you value the reporting you get from Mother Jones and you can right now, please join your fellow readers who pitch in from time to time to keep our democracy-advancing, justice-seeking journalism charging hard (and to help us avoid a real budget crunch as June 30 approaches and our fiscal year ends).

payment methods

WE'RE TAKING A SHORT BREAK…

from the big banner at the top of our pages asking for the donations that make Mother Jones' nonprofit journalism possible. But we still have upwards of $300,000 to raise by June 30, whether we get there is going to come down to the wire, and we can't afford to come up short.

If you value the reporting you get from Mother Jones and you can right now, please join your fellow readers who pitch in from time to time to keep our democracy-advancing, justice-seeking journalism charging hard (and to help us avoid a real budget crunch as June 30 approaches and our fiscal year ends).

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