Patterico's Pontifications


How the Wording of a Poll Can Skew the Outcome

Filed under: General,Government,Schiavo — Patterico @ 7:07 am

I recently noted that polls, purporting to show Americans’ disapproval of Congress’s actions in the Schiavo case, were “push polls” that first gave the arguments for killing Schiavo (omitting any contrary arguments), and only then asked respondents for their opinion.

Michelle Malkin reports that the Zogby poll has asked a very different set of questions, and — surprise, surprise — received a very different set of answers.

How polls ask a question has everything to do with the outcome. If you believe a poll result without looking at how the questions were asked, you’re a sucker.

14 Responses to “How the Wording of a Poll Can Skew the Outcome”

  1. It’s truly amazing what a difference asking a correctly-phrased question makes!

    Ann (e2ac63)

  2. Patterico–I’d say ‘great minds think alike’, but I’m not in that category. I said this morning at DOUBLE TOOTHPICKS:

    Though Zogby can get numbers like that by asking a clearly worded question, the Mainstream Media still has its amazing powers of obfuscation, making a brain-damaged but conscious woman sound like she, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, has become ‘a non-human entity.’

    Ask the question the right way, and the American Public will respond appropriately. The MSM learned this decades ago.

    Steve Bragg (9279e5)

  3. Terri’s case is a very complicated one. These silly poll questions summarize the whole case into one sentence. How people answer the silly question is applied back to the complicated case.

    How about these:
    1. Do you think there should be a grotesquely undignified media circus surrounding a person’s death?
    2. Would Terri have wanted that?
    (The pollster is authorized to kick respondant if he answers “yes” to #2)

    Ladainian (91b3b2)

  4. I’ve long held the belief that the designated purpose of polls (at least in a media-centric age) is not to ascertain the opinions of a group, but rather to indoctrinate a populous. Moreover, the difficulty of designing a poll neutral of one’s own philosophy must be a harrowing task.

    Lane (534807)

  5. This also highlights what a horrible job (if accurate reporting is judged as good) the MSM did on the Schiavo affair.

    While there was some internet support (for example this and associated blogs), that support was apparently not organized effectively enough to project found facts into the MSM by the time the MSM picked up the story. Furthermore, the effort appeared as partisan which needn’t have been the case in this instance.

    It should be possible to vette essential facts in this venue. Perhaps time was too short and perhaps neurologists have better things to do with their time then read blogs. Nonetheless, the legal talent is here along with a legion of potential fact finders.

    On the other hand, left to their own devices, those would-be fact finders quickly become prey for the conspiracy theory of the day (especially where emotions run high).

    At this stage of development of the blogoshpere, professional blogs are still a rarity (as are reputable academic blogs in many areas). So there is no depth to tap into on demand as there might be in the future.

    Paul Deignan (ad916e)

  6. So how do we look at how the Zogby poll asked the questions? Unlike the polls you object to, the details don’t seem to be available.

    James B. Shearer (fc887e)

  7. Wording of a Poll
    Don’t believe ANY poll unless they also show you the questions that were asked.

    Don Singleton (59ce3a)

  8. Here’s one of the Zogby questions, James, quoted at Malkin’s site:
    “If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma, and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water,”

    Which I would say is as much a push-poll as the other, since they didn’t mention a feeding tube, which a lot of people DO consider life-support, nor did they mention ‘persistant vegetative state’.

    The question they did ask would raise the thought of starving a blind or deaf person with laryngitus to death…

    Why doesn’t someone do a real simple poll?

    1) Should or should not Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube have been removed?
    2) In Terry’s case, who should have had the authority to make the decision whether or not to remove the feeding tube?
    It would be interesting to do some cross-correlation questions to establish how many people actually understand what a persistant vegetative state is, and also whether they thought there was sufficient proof that they would agree she was in one.

    Kathy K (7219c2)

  9. recently ran accoss a simple 2 question survey. The questions are not misleading at all. They just don’t make sense.

    Do you have a period of time (in number of years) that is considered necessary, ideal, or required, for the longevity of storage media?

    That is the first question, after I wrote them a rant about how bad it was. They added (in number of years).

    However my largest issue is still the necessary, ideal, or required. Necessary and required are similar. However Ideal is another issue entirely. Necessary and required, imply a bare minimum. Ideal would be in a perfect world. Ideally digital media would never degrade. I would think 25 years would be an acceptable minimum on the other hand.

    Steve (58b572)

  10. “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

    Toby Petzold (cd28cf)

  11. According to the wording of the question in the Zogby poll, a person who was blind in one eye, and otherwise perfectly healthy would have fit the description.

    “Not in a coma” is extremely misleading, because although Terri Schiavo was not in a coma, her condition was actually much worse than a coma.

    The question makes no mention of any mental impairment of any kind.

    [Ah, but those ABC and CBS news polls — no skewing there! — Patterico]

    Dennis Mosher (3a3060)

  12. Dennis Mosher, I don’t think it is entirely accurate to say that Schiavo’s condition was much worse than a coma. As I understand it coma is worst, followed by PVS and then minimally conscious. It may be true that you are more likely to recover from a short time in a coma than from a long time as PVS but that is an apples to oranges comparison. There are occasional media reports of people emerging from long term comas but it appears that coma is being used imprecisely and that these people were actually PVS or minimally conscious.

    James B. Shearer (fc887e)

  13. The Zogby polls commissioned by the Christian Defense Coalition is exceptionally skewed. They are the definition of a push poll. If you look at the bottom of that page, you’ll see Zogby International conducted interviews of 1019 likely voters nationwide on behalf of the Christian Defense Coalition. All calls were made from Zogby International headquarters in Utica, N.Y., March 30 through April 2, 2005. The margin of error is +/-3.2 percentage points. Slight weights were added to region, party, age, race, religion, and gender to more accurately reflect the voting population. Margins of error are higher in sub-groups. And what are those weights? Well, why not take a look at the raw poll data. You’ll see that the votes were restructured with weights depending on such always-important-to-gauging-how-much-a-person’s- opinion-is-worth-in-a-poll-factors as people’s race, religion, whether or not they’re born again Christians (page 7), whether or not they attend church services (page 9), and whether or not they like NASCAR (page 9). Don’t forget those weights are imporant, and totally unbiased, because Christians never deceive… it’s against the Bible.

    Michelle Malkin says:

    Another Zogby question [bears] directly on Terri’s circumstances.

    “If a disabled person is not terminally ill, not in a coma, and not being kept alive on life support, and they have no written directive, should or should they not be denied food and water,” the poll asked.

    A whopping 79 percent said the patient should not have food and water taken away while just 9 percent said yes.

    Actually, that has no relevance at all to the Terri Schiavo case. Contrary to the assertions of another one of the commentators here, PVS is one step up from a coma, not down. It is the intermediary between brain death and comatose, wherein a person loses cortical function but retains brain stem function. Furthermore Malkin asserts that this is not a terminal illness; if you look at the link you’ll see that the most common cause of death in PVS is infection such as pneumonia. This is actually nearly identical to the cause of death in HIV/AIDS patients; ergo it is a safe assertion to say that PVS is as terminal an illness as HIV/AIDS. Furthermore, Terri Schiavo fully met the definition of being on life support. The assertion that she was not on life support is a blatant falsehood. If you look at Florida Statute 765.101(10) (Health Care Advance Directives) you will see that “Life-prolonging procedure” means any medical procedure, treatment, or intervention, including artificially provided sustenance and hydration, which sustains, restores, or supplants a spontaneous vital function. In other words, a gastric feeding tube which bypasses her non-existent ability to swallow food and feeds her directly through her stomach so that she will survive is by all common sense and legal definitions life support. The 8 out of 10 nonsense is just that — nonsense. It does not and could not by any stretch of the imagination apply to Terri Schiavo.

    An additional question from the poll asks: Michael Schiavo has had a girlfriend for 10 years and has two children with her. Considering this, do you agree or disagree that Michael Schiavo should turn guardianship of Terri over to her parents?

    I wonder how respondents would have felt had the question been Michael Schiavo has had a girlfriend for 10 years and has two children with her. This was at the encouragement of the Schindlers, who told him to get on with his life during the long periods of time they spent together. He had also brought other girlfriends to meet his in-laws. Considering this, do you agree or disagree that Michael Schiavo should turn guardianship of Terri over to her parents? (pages 10 & 11 of this report from gaurdian ad litem Jay Wolfson, PDF).

    Or perhaps the question should have been phrased, During Terri’s stay at a nursing home, Michael Schiavo became so demanding as to his wife’s care that the nursing home sought a restraining order because it risked jeapordizing the other patients. Considering this, do you agree or disagree that Michael Schiavo should turn guardianship of Terri over to her parents?

    Or perhaps, Terri Schiavo’s parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have said they would do anything to keep their daughter alive, including lying about her wishes in court, and quadruple amputating her limbs. Considering this, do you agree or disagree that Michael Schiavo should turn guardianship of Terri over to her parents? is more to your liking.

    Yeah, and if you believe that, you really are a sucker.

    p.s.: Patterico, I really love your fallacy of tu quoque. It always helps show what a cogent argument you’ve got when the best you can say about two convenience sampling polls from websites that did not add weights to the voters on such factors as their blackness, their Christianess, and their NASCAR loving-ness; which didn’t completely glaze over the facts; wasn’t commissioned by a biased group and then couched in a neutral party’s polling company logo; didn’t attempt to propagate several demonstrable falsehoods outright about Terri Schiavo’s condition; didn’t attack Michael Schiavo’s competence as a guardian based on the fact that he listened to what the Schindlers encouraged him to do despite his attentiveness to Terri and his encouragement of radical and experimental treatments for her and the fact that he only sought treatment withdrawal when Terri’s physician informed him she would not recover is the poor man’s equivalent of “I know you are but what am I?” and “But Clinton..!” Why not just through a LOL in there to top it all off?

    J. Flynn (9a6071)

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