A Philosopher's Blog

Polls

Posted in Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on November 11, 2010
Rasmussen Polls - results for sale
Image by Las Valley 702 via Flickr

While watching CNN’s State of the Nation recently, I saw some rather interesting comments on various polls. For example, while the Republicans seem to be claiming a mandate to undo what the Democrats have wrought, one poll found that 52% of Americans actually do not approve of the Republicans.  Of course, it is wise to not put too much faith in polls-this includes favorable polls as well.

Turning to a specific issue, that of health care, the poll results are rather interesting. One poll mentioned on CNN noted that 48% of those polled favored repealing the Democrat’s health care. However, 31% favored keeping it the same and 16% advocated expanding it. As such, 47% of those polled were opposed to repealing it.  This would, it seem, serve as evidence that most Americans do not, in fact, want to repeal the health care.

Not surprisingly, those who want to repeal health care need to respond to such polls. One obvious option is to question the poll. After all, even a properly taken poll has  margin of error and, as such, the majority of Americans might actually favor repealing it (assuming a margin of error of at least 3%).

Also, as I teach in my critical thinking class, polls can be manipulated by the sort of questions that are asked (they can be loaded, for example) and the order in which they are presented. As such, unless one can see the actual questions, there are reasonable grounds to be suspicious of polls-especially those on issues that involve interested parties. Of course, this skepticism needs to apply across the board and not just to polls that disagree with one’s position. So, for example, if a Democrat is critical of polls that do not favor his views, the he should be careful to apply the same critical eye to polls that favor his views. That said, polls (at least properly done polls conducted by neutral organizations)  can be useful sources of information.

Another option, which is far less critical, is to try to explain away polls that disagree with one’s position. For example, someone might assert that an unfavorable poll does not reflect what people really want or really think. To use  a specific example, someone who wants to roll back health care might assert that the poll results mentioned above do not reflect what most people believe. Rather, it might be asserted, most people are really against health care.

Of course, it might be wondered how someone would know what most Americans actually believes. After all, if polls are not to be trusted, then polls that support his views about what Americans really believe should not be trusted either. But, without polls it seems rather difficult to get an idea about what most Americans believe (or at least claim they believe). Naturally, a person might just assume that polls that agree with his views are accurate and those that disagree must be wrong. While this might be pleasing, it is hardly critical thinking or a path to truth.

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5 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on November 11, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Polls are a serious danger to this country. The only poll that counts is the one on the first Tuesday in November. We elect leaders to lead. We select them either on their stand on issues or on their standing in society. God help us when some organization attempts to take advantage of a situation where the polls differ significantly from the actual election.

    Think about it. Considerable effort is put in to keeping your ballot selection private. Only a fool (of which we apparently have many) would answer questions put to them by a complete strangers over the phone. You have no idea who that person is. Could be your employer, the police, organized crime, any number of people could seek profit/gain by sticking their noses into your business.

  2. magus71 said, on November 11, 2010 at 12:42 pm

    In any case, we don’t run the country on polls, though I believe before the bill was passed some polls were 75% against the bill.

    The recent voting seems to be indicative of what they think of many of this administration’s policies.

  3. kernunos said, on November 11, 2010 at 3:51 pm

    “One poll mentioned on CNN noted that 48% of those polled favored repealing the Democrat’s health care. However, 31% favored keeping it the same and 16% advocated expanding it.” What does expanding it mean? Usually with polls when you have vague choices like ‘expanding it’ your wishy-washy crowd wil line up to make that choice. Your non commital types just love vague choices.

    • kernunos said, on November 11, 2010 at 3:54 pm

      Now that I look at the poll it reminds me of how Clinton won the 1992 election.

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