Let us now bandy about statistics.
December 4, 2001 5:36 PM   Subscribe

Let us now bandy about statistics. NPR (et al.) has released a poll concerning beliefs about civil liberties in the wake of You Know What and the subsequent military response, as well as another (less in-depth) supplement on Military Tribunals. Also, Talk of the Nation did an excellent program (RealAudio) on the subject. Since we're going to continue discussing it anyway, we may as well be informed.
posted by Hildago (12 comments total)
I'm not sure how polls make one well-informed. What I'm seeing from the first link is a bunch of coin flipping. 51% over here, 46% over there. I always wonder where they get that single digit percentage of people that are undecided. Maybe they go to hospitals and ask comatose patients? Polls can be fun but they're no way to run political policy, unless you're Clinton of course.

Question 20: "Do you think the basic rights of those in the U.S. who may have been involved in the terrorist attacks have been protected or not?"

Asking the average man on the street that question is like asking them whether or not they think Britney Spears really is a virgin like she says. Why would Britney Spears lie to the press about that? Why indeed. I'm still a virgin by the way. Care to take a poll on that?

The Real Audio link reveals that they actually asked people not participate by being pollsters themselves. I can't tell if these findings were used in the actual poll's final tally, or if this was just a convenient way for NPR to pad a single poll out into an actual "news piece" filled with adorable soundbytes. NPR does great work but this isn't one of their better pieces. I feel better informed after an episode of Car Talk.

Any doctor would say that one cannot tell a person is healthy simply by taking their pulse and not even looking directly at the patient. A poll is like taking the pulse of the American people, but it's a very small part of a larger picture. Like looking at one jigsaw puzzle and trying to discern the entire picture. Like the lady said in the Talk of the Nation piece, the wording of such polls is often circumspect. It's impossible to answer such polls and feel you've said your piece on the topic. I would have preferred NPR put 100 people in the same room for a half hour and let them take turns talking into the microphone, but then you get a Jerry Springer episode.

If we give up any civil liberties, we risk inadvertently giving in to terrorism. Even if we were able to kill all terrorists, but lose our own freedoms in the process, they still win. They don't have to kill all of us. They just have to intimidate us to the point where they get their way anyway.

That's why terrorism is so appealing to extremists. Put a gun to one person's head in the room, and no one else in the room will try to tackle you, for fear of losing that one person. It's empowering to freeze a room with fear by intimidating just one. Another word for terrorism is "bullying."
posted by ZachsMind at 6:54 PM on December 4, 2001

if you don't like polls, or don't understand them, don't read them. question 20 is valid, polls of course don't give you the answer to the question, they tell you how many people feel each way. the percentage of people that feel the government is protecting the detainees civil liberties could be a useful piece of information, it's at the least interesting. it's irrelevant whether the people polled are factually correct, that's not what polls do. as to the undecided column, well, that's from people saying, "i don't know" is that so hard to imagine? oh, and politics is about polling, do you seriously think the bush people don't run many polls every day?
posted by rhyax at 7:23 PM on December 4, 2001

I have no doubt that Zach understands polls, what they are and how they are used.Question 20, like a lot of them, is more loaded than Bobby Fischers diaper. . The better question is: "do you care if their rights were protected or not".
There is an art and science to crafting questions so that a poll will shape public opinion, not record raw, unbiased public opinion. Question here is, what reaction is this poll built to evoke? If anyone believes polls are used to learn rather than to manipulate, they don't understand polls.
posted by Mack Twain at 8:13 PM on December 4, 2001

Well, Mack, there is a way of writing polls to minimize bias, because believe it or not there are researchers out there who want the truth rather than numbers to support a pre-determined point of view. Which questions in this poll, do you think, were designed to elicit a specific response?
posted by Chanther at 8:28 PM on December 4, 2001

Nice response, there, chanther, but pollsters still have to make money somewhere. Draw your own conclusions.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 9:24 PM on December 4, 2001

Okay, am I the only person who cannot access the NPR site?
posted by tpoh.org at 10:15 PM on December 4, 2001

Just checked all three links and they are still working for me.
posted by Hildago at 10:28 PM on December 4, 2001

I was feeling surprisingly good about this survey - that is to say the responses were more balanced and thoughtful relative to my own opinions than media would have led me to believe. At least until I got to question 25a.

There are so many disappointing things that can be inferred from those answers that I don't know where to begin.

Well no, I do know where to begin. Should government be able to intercept regular mail 57% support. Should government be able to intercept e-mail 72% support. Cause the Internet is bad you see... Stupid luddites.

Oh and, how many respondents think we should be able to hold terrorist suspects indefinitely (which I can only assume respondents knew meant potentially until they die)? Nearly half. Yeah, due process, innocent until proven guilty, those were just quaint concepts of old free thinkers that never imaged what the dangers of the 21st century would hold.

I need to go cry now.
posted by willnot at 10:30 PM on December 4, 2001

That's refreshingly cynical, Yelling at Nothing, but some pollsters get their money by working as hard as possible to minimize any potential bias. Note that I did not say completely eliminate all bias. Wonder of wonders, there are organizations that actually want a question answered truthfully, and are willing to pay pollsters who have a reputation for designing and executing polls that will answer a question truthfully.

Is there a specific question that anyone feels is somehow biased, or are we just trying to prove how sophisticated and urbane we are by dismissing the entire concept of polling?
posted by Chanther at 11:42 PM on December 4, 2001

Chanther - I don't know if there is intended bias, particularly as different questions seem to be biased on opposite sides of the way the conversation is typically constructed, but question 4 is phrased in such a way that it is difficult to disagree with it. Where as I think some of the people who professed to agree to it would advocate restricting speech without thinking through the slippery-slope consequences.

Questions 17 and 18 seem to presuppose that terrorism can be curbed by some people giving up some rights, and I think it would be pretty easy to spin that towards I am in favor of giving up my rights to curb terrorism.

The way that question 23 is phrased, it would be difficult not to view that position as being a negative thing.

The preamble before question 26 and other references to the legislation label it as anti-terrorism legislation. I suspect congress genuinely believed that is the point of the legislation, and it may be necessary to provide respondents with that context. Still, calling it that would tend to make somebody more readily support the various elements of it, because it pre-supposes that the things passed by the legislation will assist in curbing terrorism.

In question 39, asking how much inconvenience have you experienced pre-supposes that there was some inconvenience.

Again, by asking how much, question 53 pre-supposes that there is some worry.

Question 57 doesn't allow for the possibility that somebody may think people of middle eastern decent may be less sympathetic to the terrorists concerns/methods that other Americans.
posted by willnot at 12:38 AM on December 5, 2001

Zachs: I know it was just an afterthought, but I hate seeing this mythology about Clinton and polls everywhere. Yes, Clinton used polling to decide how to go many time. That he was alone in doing so, however, is total horseshit. The use of polling in the design of the GOP Contract with American through polling, for instance, is well-known, exceedingly well-documented. It's at the center of the 1994 takeover story, actually. The pollster who worked on the contract, Frank Luntz, conducted focus groups for MS-NBC during the last election. How'd he get that job? He was known for the Contract with America, that's why.
posted by raysmj at 3:45 PM on December 7, 2001

I answered all 66 questions, clicked [View Results], and got a javascript error.

I am now going to go hurt someone.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 4:00 PM on December 7, 2001

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