Ignorance and Opinion Polls

Well, I’ve written about a couple of posts by Joe Carter over on the evangelical outpost when I disagreed with him, so I ought to write once in a while when I agree! This morning he posted a truly wonderful write-up on opinion polls.

It has been said that “figures lie and liars figure,” but that is not precisely accurate. It is not that the figures lie, but that they allow us to compile and present them so as to make the combination of many truths turn into a lie. The major problem with polls I believe is that they are either poorly designed, or their results are given a meaning in presentation that they don’t actually possess.

So many people are so weak at math, and so unused to thinking with any precision about the data that they are easily mislead. One of my favorite means of statistical deception is the “on a scale of one to ten” question. Ask any sample of people to rank some issue from one to ten and then average the numbers and you will get what appears to be a very precise impression of the views of that group of people. The impression, however, is largely false.

I recommend a couple of books: How to Lie With Statistics, which is old, but still very relevant, and Damned Lies and Statistics, which is more recent and also covers major issues in more detail.

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