The Post-Polling Era

So the writ has dropped and they’ve called an election in British Columbia. As Pooh would say “Oh Bother”. Actually this will be good because it’s our first opportunity to vote in Canada. What I’m not looking forward to are the polls. Every week this or that poll will say this party or that one is ahead. They put out press releases and the news and talk shows lap them up. Hey, it’s good filler. There is some gaffe by a candidate and spot polls are out within a couple of hours to indicate any shift in public opinion. During debates real time polls are shown after every answer. There is lots of sound and fury, and it all signifies nothing. The reason is simple. Polls mean nothing. Polls are always wrong. Even when they get one right, it means nothing, broken clock and the village idiot can get something right occasionally. A blind man throwing a basketball will once in a while sink one. In reality, polls are fatally and irreparably flawed and we should stop paying the slightest attention to them. We are entering the post polling era.

A week ago CBC interviewed a person from some polling organization. I don’t offhand remember which one. She was blathering about their improved metrics, and systems and such. Finally the announcer asked her why, after the polls blew it over Brexit, and Trump, and the Alberta NDP, and a hundred other elections why anyone should believe them any more. She cheerily replied that they’ve looked at the times that they’ve gotten it wrong and improved their methodology. They’re making an effort to include groups that have been under-sampled in the past. They’ve learned from the earlier mistakes so we can trust them in the future.

In other words, she was an idiot.

You see the problem with polls and polling is irreparable. They cannot be fixed. In this always connected, social media, cynical age it is not possible to do an accurate poll. There are three reasons:

First a majority of the general population will not answer polls. They have no interest in chatting with some pollster on the phone. We’re busy. We’ve got things to do. We certainty don’t have time for this shit. Add to that cynicism because of things like push-polling, and tricky questions intended to get the answer whoever is paying for the poll wants, and sales calls that start out masquerading as a survey and the inclination to respond is even lower. In many ways the polling organizations have poisoned their own well. Top it off with a healthy Snowden inspired dose of paranoia and it’s amazing that anyone is answering polls at all. What’s most important though, is that those of us who don’t answer polls do not see the world the same as those that do. My neighbour may be the same race, income, and live on the same block as me, but if he is willing to spend five minutes talking to a pollster on the phone, I can guarantee we disagree on a lot of issues, especially political. Polls asking about a subject will simply not have data from the population that won’t answer polls. It is a fundamental flaw. That is something that cannot be corrected for by oversampling a particular demographic or applying mathematical corrections. If the data isn’t there, it isn’t there and a conclusion based on flawed data is meaningless.

Next, most people have a cell phone. Indeed the population that only has a cell phone is growing. In many areas the majority do not have a home phone, only cells. In most jurisdictions you cannot make polling or sales calls to a cell number. I think it’s safe to say that the opinions and attitudes of people on the go who live on their cell phone are different from someone who is home enough to have a land line. Regardless of age, or income, or race. If you are around the house enough to have a land line then your world view has to be far different from an identical person who isn’t. The opinions of habitual cell phone users are completely missed in polling. Once again, that is something that cannot be corrected for by oversampling a particular demographic or applying mathematical corrections. If the data isn’t there, it isn’t there, and a conclusion based on flawed data is meaningless.

The last reason polling does not work is the Boaty McBoatface effect. There is a large part of the population who will answer polls, but give ridiculous answers for the fun of it. Who just want to skew the data. Who, perhaps out of annoyance or paranoia, will just not give their true opinion. This means not only are the polling organizations not getting a good statistical sample of the population and their opinions, not only missing huge specific demographics completely, it means that the data they ARE getting is terminally flawed and cannot be trusted. The results are meaningless. You cannot add corrections and fiddle with flawed data any more than you can calk a boat with a screen door in the bottom to make it float.

The data they get is irreparably flawed and is missing whole demographics they cannot correct for. The data they have is so full of noise and deliberate errors that it cannot be trusted despite any cleanup and corrections. There’s an old saying in computing: Garbage in Garbage out. When you are dealing with bad data you cannot get anything of value out of it. the results are worthless.

We are now in a post-polling era. It is no longer possible to take an opinion poll and have it mean anything. I put no credence in polls and polling and I wish everyone else, especially news organizations, would do the same. Their numbers mean nothing. They are of no value. They are as significant as the homeless person in the corner yelling about the voices in his head. To take the polls is a waste of time because the results have no value. The only bigger waste of time is any attention paid to polls.

They are utterly worthless.