The Problem with Polls

Who is going to win the upcoming presidential race?

I don’t have the answer, but I can certainly point you to a poll that purportedly does!

Try here: http://www.gallup.com/poll/157817/election-2012-likely-voters-trial-heat-obama-romney.aspx

Don’t like that one? Here is a table reporting the results of several polls simultaneously: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/us/general_election_romney_vs_obama-1171.html

Still unsatisfied? Go here: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/ While you are there, watch the clips of Nate Silver on The Daily Show (particularly part 1).

If you are pressed for time, here are the take home messages.

  • We are too “hyper” about polls.
  • While we have access to lots of data, this data is not used well or in, necessarily, reliable ways.
  • Pundits give predictions that basically have no merit whatsoever.

Here, I am primarily interested in point one. We are, indeed, too hyper about polls.

It is easy to forget that more data does not necessarily translate into better information. Worse, we fall prey to the flawed notion that numbers are the same as facts, and facts are always right. If polls show us anything, it is that how the survey is put together matters. We have all probably been on the other end of a phone survey that is clearly designed to be used by a politician in her/his promotional materials. Some of the polls reported in the media are no better. In fact, sometimes the information is not accurately reported.

So, rather than feeling elated or defeated by the latest numbers, go look at the survey and results that hold so much sway over your mood.  You may be surprised by what you find.

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About Double take Sociology

I am a professor of sociology at Florida State University. I research (and write about) social movements, mass media and politics. My new book is "Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America" (2015, Cambridge University Press). Be sure to visit my website at www.DeanaRohlinger.com!
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