Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rolling on polling

Anytime I hear someone refer to a poll of a small number of people as representing an entire group, I cringe for a split-second and then I tacitly append "…and I give credence to that poll because it supports my position" to the end of the argument, and then there's no need for quibbling. I concede that no one has time to solicit the specific input of large groups (especially if we're talking about hundreds of millions of citizens), and our republic operates on the notion of a small number representing the rest, so we must accept the inherent limitations and flaws of polls and surveys for pragmatic considerations.

However, to suggest that polls "prove" anything is a stretch; questions of extremely limited scope with a very limited number of possible responses (that offer no opportunity for explanation of why the respondent answered as he/she did) are posed to whomever is the target audience, and then that data is interpreted to mean something far more general. The "empirical" data could be rather skewed up front, depending on how the questions were phrased, but that's a close to anything that can be said with any level of certainty: To this specific question, x number of respondents answered this way, and x number answered that way. What that says in a larger context is what the individual looking at that data brings to the equation with his/her biases, with what he/she wants it to mean.

I'm not saying that's wrong, or that we don't all do it; I'm merely identifying that such is the underlying reality of what we're doing, and to pretend anything definitive is achieved by them is nothing more than we, as individuals, deluding ourselves with the notion that we're actually living in a world filled with monolithic, homogeneous groups where we can make sweeping general remarks about them; we don't have time to take into account the utter uniqueness of the rest of the people in the world.

(Yes, the act of making a generality about how we're all individuals is intentional.)

If you want to know what I think, read what I wrote. And then discern as best you can if I'm being ironic or not.

Oh, like any of my actual opinions are going to be anything one manipulate the same way is done with polls...

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So, what do you think?