Tuesday, September 23, 2008

PBS in the fake poll ranks

From operatives south of the border comes word of PBS's ongoing flirtation with the Dark Side of survey research (this is a veteran agent who took the maths degree before the journalisms degree, so when she turns on the caps lock key to complain about validity, we listen). The cousins at PBS are running a click-to-vote poll on this question:

Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States?

Opinions are divided on how to respond (let's rule out throwing stuff at the cats, who know just as well as the rest of us that self-selected samples are invalid by definition and have all the predictive value of the Solunar Tables, whether they're conducted by PBS or hillary666.com). One camp likes to storm the poll until the numbers shift. I can see the appeal, but it seems ultimately sort of like hacking the newspaper's computer system to change the next day's horoscope: feels good, doesn't actually increase your chances of meeting a tall dark stranger.

On the other hand, maybe we could all write to PBS and gently point out: Look. There are endless dozens of places to find bogus polls and made-up statistics and other things that get in the way of real information. We like public broadcasting in general, and specific stations in particular, because they're reliable sources of actual good information. We'd like you to know we appreciate that. And we hope you'll consider an immediate and permanent end to anything that tries to pass as public opinion research without meeting some basic standards of validity and reliability. That includes but isn't limited to any "poll" in which the sample selects itself, as in the "Do you think Sarah Palin is qualified" example.

Yes, there are people who contend that click-to-vote polls are a kind of harmless fun. That misstates things. "Harmless" is the best they can hope for, under optimal conditions, which would include frequent prominent disclaimers that the poll is essentially a horoscope with numbers, not to be taken seriously by anyone on either the sending or the receiving end of the mass media equation. And if your best-case scenario calls for frequent proclamations that something carrying your brand is a joke and ought to be ignored, imagine how the other scenarios look.

We know you value your work more than that. We certainly do.



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