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Last week we discovered that 79% of those polled in a recent NYT/CBS poll believed that the government had the responsibility to provide a good retirement for them. Or did they? Is this what you actually read in last week’s article? (If not see it here, it is required reading for this article.) Or thought you read? If so, you’ve just experienced firsthand the power of polls.
The question that was actually asked in the poll was: “On the whole, do you think it should or should not be the government's responsibility to provide a decent standard of living for the elderly?” Now, carefully read this question again. Does it say that the government should provide a retirement for the elderly? No. Does it say anything about Social Security? No. In fact, even from most people’s understanding of a free-market, laissez-faire driven economy, this question does not raise any red-flags. Only the most radical libertarians advocate an absolutely free-market with no constraints. The Founding Fathers typically agreed that the government should have a hand in regulating the free-market to ensure that criminal activity does not turn the free-market into a bloodthirsty monopoly controlled by mafia types. So with this understanding, I could conceivably say “should” to the above question, except for that little word “provide.” Change “provide” to “ensure” and it changes the question dramatically. But this is where the ultimate power of the polls is displayed—arbitrary word games.
Don’t think for a minute that these polls have not been “crafted” for maximum results. In fact, the same questions have been used for many years, just slightly modified to reflect the current administration. The press makes its living using arbitrary language. In order to appear “objective,” you must use neutral language such as “decent standard of living.” What does this mean? A decent standard of living for you is going to look very different from a decent standard of living for a Fortune 500 CEO. Now it begins to make a bit more sense why 79% of those polled answered “should” to this question.
It might also be noted that this question makes its appearance about a quarter of the way through the poll. It is question #21. That’s right, the poll is about 100 questions. (Click here to download the whole poll.) If you have ever been involved in one of these, you know the agony of them. I have only been so unlucky to get “chosen” once. I was working two jobs, taking college classes full-time, and getting prepared for the birth of our first baby. I had just gotten back from class and as I readied myself to head off to my first job, the phone rang. Some lady on the other end wanted to ask me “some questions for a poll.” I informed her that I only had a few minutes. “No problem,” she insisted. It would only take a few minutes. Half an hour later (seriously), she’s still asking me questions, and I’m trying as desperately as possible to be civil. After 35 minutes, she’s still asking questions, I’m late for work, and I tell her that I have to go. “Just a few more,” she replies. 45 minutes later my civility is gone and I tell her that I am done and hanging up now. “Almost done,” came the voice, but that’s the last I heard, because I really did hang up on her.
As I looked over the NYT/CBS poll, I realized that I disconnected our lovely chat somewhere in the high 60s to low 70s. This means that I would have been on the phone at least another 15–20 minutes in order to complete the poll. It’s amazing to me that almost every TV show, every commercial, every product now sold proclaims and caters to the “busyness” of the modern world. Everyone needs to “save” time, because they have none. Yet the pollsters expect you to give them an HOUR to answer “some” questions. Who has this to give? I will leave the speculation to you, but I would venture to say that anyone who has this time to give to a poll probably does not accurately speak for me, or for you, for that matter.
Do yourself a favor, download the poll and take a look at it when you get the chance (I know you’re busy). It’s interesting to look back over the previous responses (some questions go back over twenty years). And the responses are only a part of the “power.” Just like I did at the beginning of this article, newscasters, decision-makers, politicians, etc. interpret the findings and put their own (sometimes not so) subtle spin on what this really means. Question 21 does not deal with Social Security by name, but question 20 does, so my interpretation in the beginning paragraph is probably accurate, but who can say for sure? When you understand, not only the language of the poll, but the ordering and juxtaposing of the questions (e.g. an abortion question immediately follows our “decent standard of living” question), you will begin to think more critically and be able to question just what is being asked (and what is really being found out) in these polls of “public opinion.”