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By Dave Whitney
Guest Columnist

POLLING &mdash
JUST WHOM ARE THE POLLSTERS TALKING TO?

Daily we are deluged with results from one poll or another telling us what we think, what we eat, what we drink, and generally how we should live, love and vote.

But whom are these pollsters talking to?

When is the last time you got a call from someone taking a poll that didn't want to sell you a free weekend in a time-share resort about 10 miles west of paradise? I know a lot of people, but few, if any, have ever gotten a call from a legitimate pollster if such an animal really exists.

Yet day in and day out we are deluged by the results of "polls." There would be a lot of dead air time on radio and television if the talking heads didn't have poll results to report or to use to back up their view of the world.

Politicians love poll results. They can inevitably find some to back up any point of view they are pushing at the moment.

Polls are always reported as having a "margin of error" of plus or minus some single digit percentage point, but do they really?


LIES, DAMNED LIES, AND STATISTICS

I once had a book entitled "How to Lie With Statistics." I don't know where it went, it was probably borrowed and not returned by some political hack whose path I crossed. About all I could remember about it was that it left me with the impression that about 99 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot. Give or take the margin of error, of course.

Today pollsters seem to be more numerous than honey bees, whose population is slowly diminishing. They are quoted ad nauseam but I never hear from them and my bet is that many of you have never heard from them either.

One of the reasons may be that we don't have the correct telephone. Something like 25 percent of us don't have landline telephones anymore. Over half of the younger (18-24) set rely solely on their cell phones and other new technologies for their connection to the rest of the world.

Pollsters are noted for using the telephone, telephones connected by land line because land-line phone numbers are readily available and can be easily programmed into automatic dialing systems to economically dial up people to interview.

But if fewer people are available to interview because a telephone line does not connect them, and if the population group available to be interviewed is skewed by the elimination of a major portion of one or more groups within the general population, then how accurate could any poll really be?

[A note from the Editor: There are endless email rumors circulating that cell phone numbers are being released to telemarketers, and pollsters will have access to these lists. IT'S JUST NOT TRUE. (Visit Snopes.com or TruthorFiction.com for the scoop on those false rumors). Cell phone numbers are NOT being published like land-line numbers (See info on FTC.gov)].

However, it does not do any harm to visit the National Do Not Call Registry website, or call 888-382-1222 and have your cell phone number placed on the National Do Not Call List. Just remember, to make it work you have to make the call from the cell phone on which you want incoming random calls blocked. You cannot call from a different number.

Nonetheless, those of us who live by the cell phone these days can still expect some invasion of our privacy by the telephone pirates. And, if we answer their call it will be billed to us or charged against the minutes we are permitted to use under whichever cell phone plane to which we subscribe.

The pollsters and sales people don't care. They want to either pick our brain or pocket and the phone is their instrument of choice.

Still with this added power I doubt if many of us will ever be polled about anything of consequence, so why should we believe, or put any faith in, any of the hundreds of poll results reported to us in a constant flow on our daily news?

We probably shouldn't. Even though the science of statistics has been advanced in both techniques and supposedly accuracy over the years I have little faith in it. My assumption is that it is used more to attempt to convince us to subscribe to someone else's viewpoint than to inform us.

When was the last time you saw a politician report a poll that cast a negative view on his person or views?

And, why should we think the view of a few hundred people picked at random from a phone list is representative of the collective view of 300 million people?

HOOK, LINE AND SINKER

Polls can be played with. I know because I did it 30 years ago when I was anchor of a weekly business and economics television show on Public Television in Jacksonville, Fla.

The program had a 7 p.m. Friday time slot and ran against reruns of M*A*S*H on one of the local commercial television stations. M*A*S*H was a very popular television series at the time and impossible to beat in the ratings that determine who buys ads, or who sponsors programs in the case of public television, that are the bread and butter of television production.

But Lady Luck looked down on me when a friend of mine wanted an introduction to a woman who just happened to be a friend of my wife at the time. He was smitten and vulnerable and was one of the anonymous few that was paid by a national television rating service to record his weekly television viewing.

It was an easy setup. I simply offered to introduce him to the lady who had stolen his heart if he would record in his rating book that he faithfully watched my television show every Friday night.

He took the bait, the introduction was made and by the time the next quarterly ratings were released my program was ahead of M*A*S*H and the public television station that carried it was garnering more sponsors for my program than for any of its more popular ones.

It apparently doesn't take much to nudge poll and survey results one way or another since what they are trying to sell us is what they say is the view or the many collected only from the few.

I have a very jaundiced view of poll and survey results but they do amuse me. I look at them more as a portrait of the silliness of our political world and ridiculousness of our latest breed of modern marketers than anything of a profound nature.

Copyright © 2010 Dave Whitney


Dave Whitney is a retired journalist and adventurer who has won many writing awards. His recent Suddenly Senior columns include Obamacare - You're Going to Love it and It's Getting Lonely Under the Bus. He was born and raised in central Ohio, attended school in Missouri, served in the US Army Security Agency, and migrated to Florida a half century ago. Author of four books, he is a former Associated Press writer/editor and has been nominated three times for the Pulitzer Prize during his writing career. As editor and founder of the Free Press newspapers in the Florida Keys he was the first publisher to pick up Frank Kaiser's "Suddenly Senior" column when it entered syndication. Whitney currently resides in Lakeland, Fla., after living 25 years in the Florida Keys. Write him at davewhitney@suddenlysenior.com

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