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83 per cent of people say opinion polls are rubbish

The use of opinion polls by lobby groups is not to gather information but to create false opinions and use those to make politicians think the public is on the side of big money. We need to get wiser about opinion polls or we’re going to start falling for this stuff like they do in the US.

I’ve been getting increasingly irritated by the use and abuse of opinion polls in Scotland. I outlined my theoretical problem with them in a Scotsman article. But there are a number of practical reasons I’ve been getting annoyed over the last wee while.

It started with the pro-NATO campaign and it’s compelling evidence that most people would want to stay in NATO if Scotland became independent. But this is a question on a direct par with ‘do you think they’ve discovered the Higgs Boson?’. Few people have the information at their fingertips that they’d need to answer the question so all they can do is reflect back the balance of the opinions they have heard. I think they probably have found the Higgs Boson, and yet I have no idea what that means. People know virtually nothing about NATO other than its own propaganda and they know very little indeed about possible geopolitical threats to a theoretically independent Scotland. So the question is almost certain to reflect back the side that gets the most media coverage.

It gets worse with the second poll question released a few weeks later. This one is loaded from the start. So ‘do you feel safer in NATO?’ gets a broadly positive answer. Of course it does – change ‘NATO’ to ‘a crash helmet’ or ‘your duvet’ and it also gets a positive answer because of the use of the word safer, which inclines people to associate their views with whatever is implied in the question would be likely to make you safer. And the bigger problem comes if this question was asked first – the second question then also becomes loaded since you’ve already intentionally associated NATO with safety. Was there a third question? Was it asked first? Was it ‘would you like to die in your bed from a terrorist attack?’ If so the sequence of questions is designed to produce a bogus result.

Then I got a phone call from Populus, carrying out their poll which was published in the Times last week. It’s always nice to be polled like I’ve never been involved in political strategy. The reason is it lets me understand the outcome of polls through the process of me trying to answer the questions in a way that reflects what I really think. So for example, I was asked whether I thought the Tories or Labour were more likely to keep their election pledges. What I want to say is that the Tories are explicitly working for the rich and powerful while Labour pretends not to be but is in reality. This turns into the Tories being more likely than Labour to do what they say. I do not for a second intend this to be positive for the Tories, but I can’t answer the question any other way.

It got worse when they asked me about my political priorities, selected from a list of 12 dictated to me. Top of my political priorities are structural reform of the economy, reducing income and wealth inequality and major reform of the British state and in particular the unequal access to power wielded by big money. None of these was on the list. I could have opted for ‘economic growth’ but that is certainly not what I meant. Reform of the state just wasn’t in the running and the closest I got was to choose the issue more linked to universalism and lack of commercial outsourcing (‘the NHS’ wasn’t even on the list – ‘NHS reform’ was, a remarkably loaded selection). And there was nothing at all about inequality, only poverty and, separately (as if they weren’t linked issues) unemployment. So I end up answering ‘poverty, unemployment and education’. Which is most certainly not what I mean.

This is followed by a sequence of questions which were not for the Times but, I realised two questions in, was the tobacco lobby. I don’t have the energy to pull apart this nonsense properly. There were about a dozen or more questions and the only ones which weren’t loaded were the ones designed to load the subsequent question. But an example of each. ‘Do you think tobacco smuggling is a problem?’ (Eh, yes). Then ‘if plain packaging increases smuggling would think it a price worth paying?’. My actual answer to the guy on the phone was ‘you’re kidding, right?’. He was probably a sociology graduate. By the time he got to the question ‘do you think government should take the tough decision now to force cigarettes to be sold in plain packaging in the hope of long term benefit or do you think government should properly implement existing stringent regulations?’. My jaw hung down in amazement. This was insane, utter garbage. I look forward to it being used to lobby – I’ll be fascinated to see the interpretation.

Next came the British Attitudes Survey. At some point soon I’d like to find time to do an analysis of this for the website but in the meantime I want to pick apart on key interpretation, stated with certainty by psephologists in a national newspaper. This analysis tells us that without doubt the big issue in the independence debate – the defining issue – is personal economic benefit. This is stated because people who are more likely to say that the economy will improve for them are more likely to say that they support independence and visa versa with the third in the middle unsure. But people who support independence are more likely to be positive about it and claim economic benefit while those who are against it will say bad things about it. This is to give excessive weight to one directional causality in one question. The same turns out to be true if you ask the question about ‘pride’ and the welfare state. But once again the pre-existing certainty that it is the economy that matters finds no reason for lack of certainty in claiming that it is the belief in a better economy that makes people say they’ll vote Yes and not a belief in independence that makes them say the economy will be better. This loose, loose analysis then goes on to infect political debate.

Finally, that seeker of truth the Daily Mail polls school kids and discovers they’re anti-independence. I find this counterintuitive although I accept I have seen nothing conclusive about this particular generation and that there can be significant generational swings in opinion. But still, the fact that it was carried out in a number of ‘state and private’ schools is immediately a red flag. If there are more than 100 private school kids in their sample of 2,500 kids it is immediately skewed. And in any case the important factor is most certainly not how many ‘schools’ were surveyed but which schools. A poll usually weights for social class and other issues. This one (at first glance) seems a bit like a fourth year modern studies project.

And yet as far as I can tell in all of these occasions the interpretation which has been made of each is taken to be ‘true’ and seldom questioned. This is happening more and more. In my Scotsman piece I suggested politicians don’t know who we are and use polls to try and find out. The other half of this is an army of big-money interest groups determined to use opinion polls to make sure they never find out.

Robin McAlpine