Accuracy of political polling no longer just a matter of opinion
OPINION:Conducted properly, polls are a powerful antidote to spin
With the passing last week of Jack Jones, a pioneer of market research and political polling in Ireland, we were given pause to reflect on how polling has evolved over the past 30 years and what new challenges await.
Happily, much progress has been made in convincing business leaders, politicians and the public of the accuracy of polls and opinion surveys.
There is now a broad acceptance of the science of polling. In the same way that we accept that only a sample of our blood needs to be taken to make a diagnosis, we understand why interviewing only a sample of the population is enough to measure public opinion if there is a rigour to how the sample is selected.
Evidence of the increased confidence in poll results can be found in the reluctance of politicians to challenge the validity of a poll when presented with unfavourable findings.
No more rogues
The timing of the poll may be queried, or the context explained. But rarely is it called wrong or, that favoured phrase, rogue. Instead, attention has shifted to the integrity of polls and their interpretation in the media.
In the Seanad last week Senator Rónán Mullen queried the reporting of the Ipsos MRBI poll on abortion in The Irish Times. He suggested the paper was “in danger of losing the confidence of the public if they insist and persist in presenting information that seems to be less about informing and more about securing certain political ends”.
Polling is one of the most important investments in news a media owner can make. William Randolph Hearst once observed that news was something someone didn’t want printed; all else was advertising. Polls and opinion surveys are sometimes that something. They are a powerful antidote to spin because they are commissioned to inform, without influence.
The recent Irish Times/ Ipsos MRBI opinion poll on abortion illustrates how essential independent polling is to debate, policy formation and the task of governing.
Legislating for abortion in the X case will not be easy. It is important that the Government listens to the experts. But it also needs to listen to the public’s concerns.
In last week’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins reported that public opinion, since 1997, had moved from being against to being in favour of legislating for abortion. He also interpreted from the poll that the majority were in favour of abortion under certain circumstances, but “drew the line at the notion that abortion should be permitted where a woman deems it to be in her best interest”.
This interpretation of the poll is informative and objective. However, polls and surveys are not always conducted and reported on with integrity. The increased use of polls and surveys to prop up spurious claims without any interrogation of the robustness of the supporting data or any attempt to take a holistic view of the findings is threatening to undermine public confidence in polling. More media scrutiny is needed. In particular, push polls should never be allowed to poison political debate in Ireland.
There are even greater challenges ahead. We live in an era of big data, which arguably makes it even easier to deceive with statistics. In this new world all we have to cling to is integrity.
Damian Loscher is managing director of Ipsos MRBI