Beware of Poll Predictions Based on Poorly Representative Samples
I am going to take a moment of publisher privilege and write about a topic that is not specifically atomic, nuclear, or energy related. As I read about election predictions based on polling numbers, I am reminded of a story I learned during one of my statistics classes.
We had just learned the mathematical formula for determining the required sample size for a specified “error rate”. It turns out that if you test 1000 randomly selected representatives of a given group, you will be able to predict the behavior of that group to a precision of +- 3%.
To illustrate the importance of the descriptive words – “random” and “representative” – the instructor told the famous story of the polls that predicted that Dewey would handily beat Truman in the 1948 election. That election took place in the early days of political polling. The poll was taken by telephone at a time when telephones were still luxury items. Since Dewey’s supporters tended to be in the higher income classes compared to Truman’s, the telephone polls included a systematic sample bias that made their results wildly inaccurate in predicting the actions of the people who voted.
There are a number of observers who are pointing out the fact that the 2010 elections might contain a different kind of telephone bias, since there is a growing population of people who do not own traditional wired telephones. Similar stories ran during the 2008 election season. According to The Pew Research Center, a recent phone sample that specifically includes cell phones in addition to land lines shifted a few points towards candidates from the Democratic Party.
Based on my own admittedly non-random sampling, I suspect that there are other technological developments that are making phone polling less and less representative of the voting population. Though I generally take the time to vote, I NEVER take the time to talk to a pollster. Like most of the people that I call, I only answer the phone if I recognize the caller ID. I let voicemail handle the sales people and the robodialers. I never return those calls.
In the rare instance when I am distracted enough to answer the phone without looking at the caller ID, I hang up without comment as soon as I recognize an autodialer, a poll or a sales pitch. (I have been told I am being rude when I quickly hang up, but I figure I am saving the person on the other end time. Is that rude or not?)
The final technological issue that is becoming more important is the growing use of texting rather than talking. Both of my twenty something daughters are more likely to answer a text from a friend than a telephone call from a stranger – quite frankly, so am I. Are my responses to attempts to intrude in my life common enough to cause an additional bias in the polls towards answers given by people with more time on their hands and less interest in using modern technology?
I am not sure what political positions the people who use cell phones, texting, and caller ID favor, but my prediction is that the final results of the upcoming election will be substantially different from the results predicted by using polls produced from surveying people who actually answer randomly placed calls and take the time to answer questions from surveyors.
Good polling is more of an art than a science.
I’m sure that there is a (slight) bias in the polling numbers, but I’m not convinced that it’s all that large. In my opinion, it’s less important than correcting for likely voters, when it comes to accurately predicting the results of an election.
Frankly, most of the folks who have only cell phones or who don’t bother to participate in polls are also part of the group who is least likely to vote. They turned out in 2008, but I don’t predict that they’ll show up at the polls in large numbers this year.
I think that the story of this election was foreshadowed by the unusual amount of participation in the primaries. I don’t think that missing a few cell-phone users is going to change that.
Obama and the Democrats missed an opportunity to put this country back on track towards a positive future.
They could have easily pulled all of our troops out of the Iraq within 18 months after Obama took office. The war in Iraq would now be completely over if had done so. That would have been a huge political and economic victory since we are spending over $100 billion a year in Iraq– a country that had absolutely nothing to do with 9-11.
The Democrats could have passed laws mandating that all utilities produce at least 50% of their electricity through carbon neutral sources by the year 2020 and 90% by the year 2030 with the penalty of heavy carbon pollution taxes if they don’t. This would provided strong incentive for utilities to move rapidly towards nuclear and renewable energy sources.
The Democrats could have passed laws mandating that at least 10% of all gasoline, diesel fuel, and aviation fuel be derived from carbon neutral sources by the year 2020, 50% by the year 2030, and 90% by the year 2040, again with the threat of heavy carbon pollution taxes if companies don’t reach these levels. This would have provided strong incentives for companies to invest in converting urban and rural biowaste into synthetic gasoline, diesel fuel, and jet fuel and using nuclear and hydroelectric power to produce carbon neutral gasoline, diesel fuel, and aviation fuel.
The Democrats should have had high speed rail projects already funded and under construction all over the nation, creating jobs all over America.
Obama should have supported the establishment of a permanent base on the Moon and a significant increase in the NASA budget in order to do so. Our investment in space has always increased our national wealthy while also advancing our technological know-how. Making enemies with NASA and with the legacy of John F. Kennedy was a huge political mistake by Obama.
Obama and the Democrats should have supported real bi-partisan health care reform by establishing a blue ribbon commission to examine what we can do to– dramatically reduce– the cost of Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance in this company. Such a commission could have traveled to other countries to see why they spend substantially less than we do on health care while providing a higher quality of service.
Obama and the Democrats should have established Federal nuclear energy and renewable energy banks to help fund new nuclear and renewable energy construction in this country which would have created new jobs all over America.
Republicans will gain seats in Congress. Unfortunately, they’ll probably preach the same old anti-government, anti-tax, pro-corporation BS that has sent many of our jobs over to China, stopped us from investing serious tax dollars into America’s crumbling infrastructure, kept us dependent on foreign oil, and has involved us in an extremely expensive and totally unnecessary war in Iraq. And they still won’t have the guts to reduce unnecessary military spending or fix our appallingly and unnecessarily expensive government and private health insurance systems.
Enemies? NASA isn’t Obama’s enemy. NASA is doing exactly what Obama wants them to; although I hear that they are considering a slight name change to NAMSA: The National Aeronautics and Muslim Self-esteem Administration.
Instead of NASA going to the moon, it looks like the moon is coming to NASA. I’ve heard rumors that the new NAMSA logo will incorporate a moon and a star. 😉
A poll might show a majority of people “want” 100% solar power. That doesn’t mean the majority of people can afford it, or that it’s at all possible to do.
I am not an expert at polling, but the passionate individuals at both ends of the political spectrum are always willing to share the “truth” with anyone within range no matter the technology. The unknown in my mind is how many voters are mad at the incumbents and what will they do about it. The choices I hear are not vote, vote for the least distasteful or new people no matter what. I think we could see throw out everyone except my guy
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