THE ILLUSION OF SURVEYS

26. November 2011, 20:17 | by WD Milner | Full Article |

Every day we are bombarded with surveys. News outlets, magazines, radio, television, product reviews, special interests and lobby groups. All with their own agendas, all with survey results to back them up and quite often with diametrically opposite results.

How is this possible? Due to what I call the Illusion of Surveys.

All surveys, regardless of their structure, are based on the collection of information from people. People, unsurprisingly, are for the most part, amazingly easy to manipulate. While a reputable entity designing the survey and collecting data will not attempt to do this, it is quite common amongst many journalistic outlets and lobby groups to do so.

There are many academic texts an papers that document the proper way to design surveys and interviews to avoid bias, and being as it is a detailed area of experimental data collection and research statistics I will not attempt to go into it here. Instead I will illustrate my point (as I did during a conversation which gave rise to this topic) with a quote from a British television comedy series that was quite popular, Yes, Minister. Read it carefully and watch for the hook. It shows exactly how a survey (in this case an interview) can be rigged to get the answer you want.

. . .

Sir Humphrey: "You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don't want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Do you think they respond to a challenge?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?"

Bernard Woolley: "Oh...well, I suppose I might be."

Sir Humphrey: "Yes or no?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"



Sir Humphrey: "Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can't say no to that. So they don't mention the first five questions and they publish the last one."

Bernard Woolley: "Is that really what they do?" Sir Humphrey: "Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren't many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result."

Bernard Woolley: "How?"



Sir Humphrey: "Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Are you worried about the growth of armaments?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"

Sir Humphrey: "Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?"

Bernard Woolley: "Yes"



Sir Humphrey: "There you are, you see Bernard. The perfect balanced sample."

Excerpted from "Yes, Minister", Copyright © 1986 BBC

Now you have something to think about the next time you read a lobbiest pamphlet, listen to a political interview, or watch a special interest infomercial.

- 30 -

Categories: ,
Keywords: surveys,manipulation,biased results

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