Saturday, October 6, 2012

Deciphering Public Opinion Polls

For the next month, the press will bombard the American public with a flurry of election polling: some good, some bad, many unintelligible, and almost all of them meaningless. Most of the polls will be presented to support one agenda/candidate/party or another. Usually the substance, if any, will be buried in a steaming pile of irrelevant facts and unsupported assertions.

With this in mind, allow me to suggest some basic rules for understanding and evaluating public opinion polls.

Rule #1: Polls are fundamentally easy to understand.

The first rule is to accept the basic principle that polls are easy to understand--so easy that a news reporter could do it . . . if the reporter actually tries. Regrettably, too many reporters consistently fail to even make the attempt.

Anyone who can add, subtract, multiply, and divide simple numbers can understand the results of a poll. Beyond the basic math, it's just a matter of knowing and applying a few principles and understanding a few key terms.


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