Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You just understand!

Today's case of Who Moved My Negation comes from the world of news blogging, and our favorite editorial board is quoting a polling company:

Bev Perdue opened an office in Charlotte and has made a point of visiting the city, but voters there still don't think she's been attentive to them since taking office.

58% of voters feel she's been inattentive to the city's needs so far, while just 25% think she has been.

Well, has she or has she? Let's look at the trail a bit. The assertion stems from a telephone survey last week that asked this question: "Do you think that Governor Bev Perdue has been attentive to Charlotte since taking office? If yes, press 1. If no, press 2. If you don't know, press 3." Results were 25% yes and 58% no, leading to this lede on the press release:

Despite her opening up an office and making a point of visiting, only 25% of voters in Charlotte think that Bev Perdue has been attentive to the city since taking office, Public Policy Polling’s newest survey finds.

58% of Charlotteans think that Perdue has not been and 17% aren’t sure.

Fine so far. But then the polling company's own blogger succumbs to the urge to phrase things just a bit differently: "58% of voters feel she's been inattentive to the city's needs so far, while just 25% think she has been." Having made clear that it's quoting someone else, the Obs then pastes without reading, and another case of WTF grammar is born.

There isn't really a bad guy in this -- just a reminder of how easy it is to get your syntactic feet crossed up in your own native language and how thoroughly everyone (no matter how much you write or how prominent a forum you write in) needs an editor.



Blogger John Cowan said...

The missing word is grammatically important, but much more important is that the story (following the press release) misrepresents the facts. "Attentive" and "inattentive" represent polar opposites on a scale, with lots of steps in between. It's simply incorrect to leap from "58% disagreed with 'She is attentive' " to "58% said she was inattentive."

If you polled people on "Is your apartment too hot?", it would be similarly outrageous to report a 58% "no" result as "58% say their apartments are too cold."

10:38 AM, August 19, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Well ... I was hoping to get to orientation week without a polling rant, but yes -- or at least, notionally yes. Public Policy's automated calling (which I dislike) uses only two steps: yes and no, with "dunno" for Door #3. That works for stuff like "did you vote in the most recent election," but this one would be better as a five-step Likert-type scale.

I get the impression that these guys are more careful in their press releases than on their blog (one says "statistically insignificant," the other says "statistical dead heat"). And I'm way of promotional claims suggesting that being a fraction of a point closer to the population value (the eventual election outcome) makes one poll better than another -- though newspapers seem to find that argument persuasive.


5:44 PM, August 19, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. I thought they were going to be drawing some nuance between "feeling" she was inattentive, and "thinking" she was. But no.

9:28 PM, August 19, 2009  

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