Friday, April 07, 2006

Republican War on (Social) Science*

by Unknown

One of the occupational hazards of being a sociologist is an inability to say "no" to any organization that claims to be doing a survey or opinion poll. Last week, I was called (during dinner, of course) by a representative of "political opinion research organization," and, with visions of the American National Election Survey dancing in my head, I agreed to take part in the survey.

It quickly became evident that the "research organization" is sponsored by one of the Republican challengers who is trying to unseat Maurice Hinchey, the liberal Democrat who represents NY22 in the House of Representatives. Most of the questions were thinly veiled attempts to pursuade, not to reveal preferences. So, the questions about Hinchey were on this order (paraphrased):

These were followed by questions worded to favor the challenger:

What made the whole experience so surreal, though, was not so much the strong-arm wording tactics, but the surveyor herself, a very nice but probably minimally educated woman in her 50s. If someone had trained her how NOT to administer a survey, she couldn't have done a better job of skewing the results.

If social science statistics are like sausages, the results coming out of this survey are dog food. The best part, though, is that the poll didn't even persuade effectively. The surveyor couldn't pronounce the challenger's last name, so she just called him Ray for short. Somehow I don't think that's what the campaign director had in mind.

* Disclaimer: I do not mean to imply that abysmal survey practices are widespread within the Republican party, nor that Democratic politicians are any better at following the basic rules of survey construction and administration.
When I get surveys like that, I answer the questions contrarywise. For example:

Telephone pollster: "If you found out that Hinchey tried to block efforts to stop terrorism within our borders, would you be more or less likely to vote for him?"

Me: "More likely."

If figure if the survey design is that poor, I might as well confound the results just a tiny bit in protest.

Oh, and I suspect the polltaker was well aware of the irony of her own problems in light of the challenger's positions...but if you're making $8 an hour cold-calling, you're probably not someone with a lot of other employment choices.
I've assumed that with their engagement of evil geniuses such as Frank "Death Tax" Luntz, Republicans would have certain structural advantages in opinion manipulation.

I should say, Kim, I have nightmares about waking up to a Government Accountability Office report detailing survey protocol violations of the sort you describe in my favorite ongoing probability sample study...
Incidentally, I'm impressed with Dr. Bozzo for being able to land Kim as a guest poster.
Jeremy, I've wanted this to be a place where all of the social sciences can peacefully coexist.

This is actually Kim's second (and hopefully not last) posting appearance at this site. The first one is here. I am curious about the other blog (deleted or never fully set up?) listed in her profile.
"I am curious about the other blog (deleted or never fully set up?) listed in her profile."

I had to (or thought I had to) set up a blogger account of my own to be able to leave comments on someone else's blog. However, after about 20 failed efforts to be a diarist, each lasting a maximum of 2 days each, I have no illusions that I would be able to maintain a viable blog on my own.
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