Monday, August 28, 2006

Lies, damn lies, and opinion polls

How questions are phrased can mean wide shifts, even with wholly neutral words. Men respond poorly, for instance, to questions asking if they are “worried” about something, so careful pollsters will ask if they are “concerned.”

The classic “double negative” example came in July 1992, when a Roper poll asked, “Does it seem possible or does it seem impossible to you that the Nazi extermination of the Jews never happened?” The finding: one of every five Americans seemed to doubt that there was a Holocaust. How much did that startling finding result from the confusing question? In a follow-up survey, Roper asked a clearer question, and the number of doubters plunged from the original 22 percent to 1 percent.

From this helpful note from NYTimes' Public Editor to help readers "know something about polls — at least enough to sniff out good polls from bad."