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Opinion polls—are they sound policy advisers?
Why is so much money and attention given to them?
Definition of an opinion poll: obtaining the opinion of a selected sample of people regarding a specific subject, and collating the results into a table of opinions.
These may be useful to evaluate the possible acceptance of consumer products but for political policy they appear to have built in limitations. This is because in a democratic state, all the adult population have equal rights to vote and equal voting “power.” A consumer product is directed at a specific social group and so only this group are used in any poll. By their very nature, surveys of public opinion have to reduce any question to its simplest form. Asked if they would support higher taxation in order to provide better public health care; most will say yes. Asked if they would support higher taxation in order to provide better public health by paying health care managers higher salaries, the same people will say no. In surveys of opinion there is very little room for all the probable variables. In a political or governmental decision, there are always many variables. Public perception, of any issue, can change between the setting of the question and the publication of the results table.
The choice of question, that is the way it is actually worded, and the selection of the sample will have huge impacts on the results found. Modern day polling firms claim they are so sophisticated in their techniques that they can use a poll to predict what huge numbers of people really believe. They may have become more sophisticated, and vastly more wealthy, compared to the polls of say 30 years ago; but the general public have also become more “sophisticated” and cynical when dealing with anyone asking questions. These days the concept of tactical voting is a reality, but 30 years ago it was unheard of. When asked for an opinion, a great many people will automatically consider, to themselves, what are they selling? What is the comeback on myself? Why do they want to know this? If asked for any personal information (to ensure a balance of social/economic opinion for a political poll) the natural instinct of very many people is to lie. Consider the simple question, do you smoke cigarettes? 20 years ago this was a simple question with no hidden agenda and so most would answer truthfully. Now the possibility of health insurance refusal, and public condemnation, means people say no, despite actually being smokers. There are many similar situations where false answers will be given. If a stranger stops you and wants to know which income group you are in, most will inflate the actual figure. Some will be deliberately misleading just for the sheer hell of it, the chance to “get one over” an intrusive imposition on their time. The pollsters claim their questions are carefully designed to sort out this possibility, of false answers, but the public are aware of this and so they have become more adept of deceit. Our societies, particularly in cities and larger urban groups, are more cosmopolitan, the background of any sample is far more varied than it was 30 years ago. Suspicion is greater among the less wealthy, fear they are being duped into something they do not want recorded, is also greater in lower income groups. This leads to false answers. The straightforward questions about which way will you vote are unreliable, since very few will admit they can not be bothered to walk to a polling station and so will not vote, because they will not admit this, they give an answer. If you sample a thousand people and even just twenty fall into this category, of giving a voting intention but actually will not vote at all; then the table of results is distorted and false.
The time of day, the weather, the emotional state of the responder or even the clothes worn by the questioner will have have influence on the replies given. Given the sheer size of democratic populations, where the electorate is numbered in millions, a socio-economic balanced poll of 10,000 people is very expensive but actually has a wide range of possible inconsistency.
Media reporting of poll results can be more misleading that the actual poll statistics. Most reports do not even mention the size of the poll or the method of questioning. It is vary rare to see a statistical accuracy range published.
The “calls in from the public” surveys are especially unlikely to give an accurate indication of majority opinion. If a question is posed on line and the number of positive responses, is compared to the number of negative ones, this is no indication at all of how a national secret ballet will vote. For a start, the majority of people over 60 years old will not give an opinion, but the majority of this age group will vote in a secret ballot. The majority of younger people will give an opinion on line but not bother to go to a polling station. Political activists will organise mass multiple voting just to ensure it appears they have a majority. Appearances are very deceptive, especially in politics.