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Tom Toles
Posted at 07:20 AM ET, 09/27/2013

Friday Rant: How do you FEEL about polling edition

Can polling get any dumber? I sometimes wish they’d just stop. The other thing I wish they’d stop is asking tragedy victims how they FEEL about it. That question makes me FEEL like punching the reporter in the nose.

Now back to polling. The biggest exception to polling being stupid is election polling. Election polling is smart. Election polling is smarter than the pundits. The pundits guess and gasbag. The polls tell you who is going to win, usually. When they don’t tell you who is going to win, Nate Silver tells you who is going to win. With his Secret Formula. What is his Secret Formula? Averaging the polls.

The other time polling makes at least a little sense is when you ask people what they like. This requires no expertise and is therefore more or less accurate, almost by definition. “I’d like an omelet,” is probably accurate. Asking people whether they wanted a military strike on Syria is a fair question. They said no. Asking them whether a military strike on Syria is a “good idea” is more problematic. This kind of question occurs against a backdrop of a WashPost story called “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask,” which was one of its best-read recent features. Question #1 was “What is Syria?” This is more like asking a random person if an omelet is a HEALTHY food choice, and then setting dietary guidelines by the answer. It is encouraging people to think that their first guess on a subject is as far as they need to go, and then setting these “impressions” up as some kind of validating data to determine policy by.

There was one poll in the Times recently that said polling determined that the Stimulus was ineffective. Okay, thanks! And how many times have you seen it reported that most people don’t like Obamacare, without it being mentioned that some don’t like it because it goes too far and some don’t like it because it doesn’t go far ENOUGH. That is averaging, (but not the way Nate Silver averages). A recent CBS news report on Syria BEGAN with polling. Not any actual “news.” People said they supported the Obama plan for dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons, by a fairly large margin. All well and good, but the next part of the SAME STORY was ANOTHER POLL. The (apparently same?) people said they didn’t believe the plan they just said they liked would work, by about the same margin! I’d say I don’t feel much informed by that set of facts, and would say so if a pollster asked me, unless I punched him in the nose.

By  |  07:20 AM ET, 09/27/2013

 
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