Friday, July 30, 2010

Boycott Polls?

Boycott polls?

I have long considered polls to be pointless at best and evil manipulations at worst, but I participate in them out of morbid curiosity. Long gone is the day when I thought I was helping to shape the public discourse by virtue of my participation. Now I participate in order to experience an unhealthy sort of pleasure from criticizing a polls design and guessing at the agenda behind it.

On the face of it taking a poll seems neutral enough; answer a few questions, the same questions that everyone else is answering. But the questions often (almost always) offer false or impossible (impossible to answer honestly) choices, either by the allowed responses, or the vague wording of the questions themselves.

“Should the government pursue the common good by limiting certain individual freedoms” is one question I was asked on a poll yesterday. This question is in itself a definition of government. The question is meaningless unless I know what is the definition of common good we are referring to, or what certain freedoms are being limited. How can I honestly answer Yes or No to such a vague question?

“Should the government address climate change by establishing a cap and trade on carbon emissions?”

“Should the government protect Americans by holding terrorist suspects indefinitely with out charge?”

Both of these questions are more specific questions that fit within the one actually asked and both are more likely to cull an actual opinion.

Quoting existent reality in the form of a question without acknowledgement, and with out offering nuanced options for response signals to me an unspoken agenda.

I have no idea how this data is being used, or what context the results will be made public. I can assume however that the results will be embedded in a context other that a complete record of all the questions and the data they generated.

A poll I participated in a couple of years ago asked many questions about the role of prisons in Oregon, offering reasonable options for response. The main thrust seemed to be gauging attitudes along a continuum of a strong belief in rehabilitation and discretionary sentencing, to a strong belief in punitive and mandatory sentencing. There were also some relatively subtle questions about the division of limited resources, how much for prisons and how much for education. I was thinking that it was one of the better polls I had participated in until the last question. I can’t remember the exact wording of the question but it was rather sly. Hidden within a lengthy scenario describing prison reforms, was a small statement about victims’ rights (the only mention of victims’ rights in the entire poll.) When I asked the pollster to repeat the question it became apparent that the real question was about diverting money from rehabilitation to a victims’ rights program.

I believe this poll was set up for the sole purpose of getting an affirmative response to this last misleading question and was commissioned by supporters of a related initiative on an upcoming ballot.

This last example is a variation on the classic “push poll”

It is time for me to forgo my morbid curiosity and “just say no” to polls. It wasn’t that I learned something new from the poll I participated in yesterday rather; I realize that if I keep participating I will continue to be part of the problem.

I am taking the pledge to give up participating in polls. I guess I’ll have to find another satisfaction for my morbid curiosity. Suggestions?

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