Do you believe in public opinion polls? Don’t

The Pew Research Center has been caught with its pants down the other day, introducing politicking into its coverage of everyday issues. Considering this group claims it is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world, it should have been a surprise.

Please note: not a think tank. A fact tank. And not that it really was a surprise.

Pew Research Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research without taking policy positions. Thus their promotional literature that is supposed to drum up custom.

Yes? Then why did it run an alarmingly politically-fuelled tweet that offered a bizarre framing of coronavirus data by congressional districts?

And, with Pew’s alleged neutral stance challenged on an increasingly alarming number of occasions earlier, why did the Canadian media see fit to run Pew’s poll that said Canadians prefer their government’s approach to solving the Covid-19 crisis to America’s? A show of patriotism? Nationalism? Or plain lack of information?

A sordid record

Pew shocked a few who looked askance at its interpretation of a new study that compared the seven-day rolling average of deaths in Democratic-controlled congressional districts versus Republican-controlled districts.

“Covid-19 deaths have declined in Democratic congressional districts since mid-April, but remained relatively steady in districts controlled by Republicans,” Pew tweeted.

Pew’s own chart (sent out to accompany the tweet) shows something completely different: a much higher rate of death in Democratic-controlled districts. As the surprised observers pointed out, the charts show rate of 4.1 deaths following its peak of 7.4 deaths in the Democratic Party-controlled districts. The Republican-controlled districts had a rate of 1.7 deaths following its peak at 2.0 deaths.

No wonder critics blasted Pew for its misinterpretation of its own data.

As Tim Pool wrote, “Factually true tweet designed to spread misinformation by driving assumption.”

Who he?

Timothy Daniel Pool is an American journalist, YouTuber, and political commentator. He first became known for live streaming the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011.

Lest anyone accuses him of being a right-wing conspirator, herewith a bit of his own description of himself: an award-winning journalist and political commentator.

As a founding member of VICE News, he has covered major events around the world in places such as Istanbul, Cairo, and Sao Paulo. His coverage for VICE.com, as well as his ground-breaking livestream coverage of the 2011 protest movement, has been featured by international media outlets including The Guardian, Reuters, The New York Times, NBC, FastCompany, and Al Jazeera English. In 2014, Pool joined Fusion as the Director of Media Innovation to help develop and utilize new technology such as livestreaming aerial drones, mobile software and hardware, and even Google Glass.

During his time at VICE, VICE News, and Fusion, Pool produced dozens of documentaries and ground breaking content reaching hundreds of millions of viewers on topics ranging from technology, internet rights, natural disasters, revolution and urban conflict, as well as American politics.

Following his departure from Fusion, Pool began producing independent news and political commentary. In 2015, he helped launch Subverse media which currently reaches over a million subscribers and over 33 million viewers per month within its network.

Happy-go-lucky Canucks

Canadian media gleefully reported, often under bold headlines, that Canadians believe the Covid-19 crisis has brought their country together, while Americans blame the pandemic for worsening their cultural and political divide.

Whom did they quote? Why, the Pew Research Center.

According to the American pollster, fully two-thirds of Canadian respondents say they believe Canada is more united as a result of the novel coronavirus, while 77 per cent of U.S. participants feel that precisely the opposite is true south of the border.

Not only that. Pew went even further. It included the rest of the world in its study.

“In contrast, nearly three-quarters in Denmark say there is more unity now than before the coronavirus outbreak. More than half in Canada, Sweden, South Korea and Australia also say their countries have become more united since the coronavirus outbreak.”

A similar bilateral gap emerged when those surveyed were asked about how their respective countries responded to the emergency.

According to Pew, 88 per cent of Canadians respondents approve of their country’s response to Covid-19, compared with just 47 per cent of Americans who feel the same way about how the U.S. has responded.

The Americans were split along party lines, Pew added: of those who identified themselves as Republican, 76 per cent cheered the government response, compared with 25 per cent of Democrats.

“In a way, in the U.S., we do see these political splits among the two main political parties that may affect the overall views of the U.S. compared with in Canada.”

Pew wasn’t alone: Canada’s Leger pollsters, acting in the name of the Association for Canadian Studies asked a similar question.

Fully 87 per cent of Canadian respondents said their country’s response had been “much” or “somewhat” better than that in the U.S., Leger reported. Only 38 per cent of Americans agreed. Nearly as many — 37 per cent — gave the U.S. higher marks than Canada, while 25 per cent gave no answer.

Considering many Canadians still believe their country’s health system is better than that south of the border, it may illustrate two things:

  • Canadians who think so are illiterate, and/or
  • those poll results are misleading.

Based on personal experience with public opinion polls, their validity as an indicator is incredibly limited, and they do not deserve as much attention as they are getting.

Pollsters cover their behinds by saying in advance they may be wrong. You will find those statements safely at the end of their reports. Pew said that their surveys (both for Canada and the U.S.) carry a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

For those not familiar with polling statistics: this means that the results can be safely thrown into waste baskets, forgotten, and the costs can be written off by those who had ordered them as good money going after bad.

So, why did Canadian media pay so much attention to so much drivel and hot air?

This question begs an answer that ends in another question mark: could the fact that Canada’s mainstream media have received serious amounts of taxpayer money not have played a major role?

This is NOT a rhetorical question.

One thought on “Do you believe in public opinion polls? Don’t

  1. Villa Adam August 29, 2020 at 09:07 Reply

    Clovece Petre, dobry clanek ,jako vzdy.

      statiskam jsem nikdy moc neverila.Pripoustim,ze jsem po ruznych negativnich zkusenostech tak trochu podezrivava. 

    Statistiky jsou uzitecne pouze v pripadech,kdyz ukazuji spravne vysledky.

    Statistiky jsou lehce zmanipulovatelne a  to zaklada duvod,proc jim neverit. Jenze mnoho lidi jsou ovce a basti to,co jim kdo hodi do krmelce. Lzive informace jsou jednou ze zbrani medialniho prostoru a nejen tam. Jak se pravi v bibli: ” na zacatku bylo slovo “…. a stejne tak  i mala pomluva muze hodne uskodit.

    Ach ten covid ! To nam jeste chybelo !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: