Can You Trust the Polls?

February 15, 1999

Can you trust the polls? Well, the answer depends on what the question is. Over the last few months I've taken the time in these commentaries to help you evaluate the polls. We live in a poll-driven era, so I believe we should be wise viewers and readers.

A recent column in the Wall Street Journal once again raised the question of whether we should trust the polls. The authors point out that the way the question is asked, as well as respondent psychology, can often determine an answer. As an example, they take a recent poll in which respondents were asked: "Whatever a judge says the law is, jurors should do what they think is the right thing." Although three-fourths of potential jurors said they agreed with the statement, the authors of the column point out that this is hardly evidence of growing jury nullification for three reasons.

"First, on issues of relatively low salience, respondents have a strong tendency to agree with a reasonable-sounding statement. Second, when asked to agree or disagree with complex statements, respondents tend to focus on the last clause of the statement. . . . Third, any statement that begins with the word whatever tips off the respondent that the correct response is to disregard the clause that follows whatever and agree with the second half of the statement."

To prove their point, the authors of the column came up with another phrasing of the question and found that seventy-four percent agreed with the exact opposite of the earlier poll. In other words, depending on how they phrased the question, they could get a three-fourths approval or a three-fourths disapproval of a particular point. It does make you question the polls, doesn't it? And well you should.

I'm Kerby Anderson of Probe Ministries, and that's my opinion.

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