Schuh Column: Are polls trustworthy?
By Jim Schuh
Do you believe surveys and polls and “research”?
They seem to be everywhere these days – more prevalent than ever before. But are they trustworthy?
I can’t make a general statement one way or the other, but I feel some are more believable than others. You probably agree with that.
In political seasons (which never seems to end), polls on the popularity and favorability of candidates move to the fore. They even show up on your telephone – survey firms seeking to find out which candidates you favor. Political parties sponsor many of them. At our house, we don’t answer those calls, and if by chance, one did get through, we hang up quickly. My political beliefs are my political beliefs and I don’t intend to share them with intrusive strangers.
Political surveys also are favorites with newspapers, TV networks and universities. I tend to trust these polls a bit more because the surveyors have lots of experience in polling and have refined the processes they use. But sometimes I scratch my head when one poll’s findings are the opposite of another’s.
Surveying is becoming more frequent in other areas, too. Today, you can find survey results for just about anything. For example, I recently found that 37 percent of those responding to a GasBuddy poll said, “one of their worst fears when road tripping is not knowing where to find a clean restroom when nature calls.” Based on personal experience, that’s probably a reasonable conclusion.
Were you aware that 79 percent of millennials (people between the ages of 22 and 37 and who make up the largest share of Americans) who are pet owners and who bought a house last year said they’d “pass up an otherwise perfect home if it didn’t meet the needs of their pets?” That’s what Realtor.com found in a survey it took. I’m not sure what to do with this information, except maybe install a doggie door before I list my house for sale.
A Journal called Society and Animals “suggested” a survey found that people are more sympathetic to dogs than adult humans, ostensibly because people see dogs as part of the family. The survey also determined that only babies elicited more sympathy than an adult dog. You can decide whether to believe the poll of just 240 students.
How about “research” described in Scientific Reports that shows one reason we’re so attached to dogs is that when we pay attention to them, they make more facial movements? Sample size: 24 dogs.
Back to Millennials, another survey from Bloomberg says Generation Z (Americans born between 1995 and 2015) will surpass the number of millennials this year. This report is probably correct – Bloomberg extrapolated its findings from United Nations data. This information doesn’t really help me much though, since I’m no longer in business and won’t be hiring any of these people. But I know it’ll have an impact on you and me because our society will be focusing more on Gen Z in the days ahead. A website says they’ll be more digitally savvy, socially diverse, individualistic, anxious, have less religious identity and be more progressive than the rest of us. The Center for Media Research says the latest generation will be “better behaved, more trusting, socially minded and less materialistic.
Survey results I spotted in a New Zealand newspaper informed me that Bracken is the top restaurant in Dunedin. (I know people there and plan to ask them if they agree.)
We tend to take government reports as trustworthy, although politicians occasionally disagree with the findings. Using government data, 24/7 Wall Street determined that Wisconsin ranks 17th among the 50 states when it comes to economic growth, poverty, unemployment, job growth and college attainment rates. (Wisconsin’s jobless rate of 2.9 percent tied for the seventh lowest.)
Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company tells us 78 percent of Americans are extremely or somewhat concerned about not having enough money for retirement, that 21 percent haven’t saved anything, and ten percent have less than $5,000 tucked away. If that’s true, many are in trouble.
Here’s another disturbing finding. In a new survey from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at a Columbus, Ohio hospital and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, we learn that almost 40 percent of U. S. teens said they text while driving. Stay away from South Dakota where 64 percent of teens admitted to engaging in the dangerous practice. Are these data credible? Perhaps, but it depends on the survey methodology and sample size. Another factor is the margin of error.
It may seem than researchers sit up nights trying to think up projects and polls to keep themselves busy. For example, a group of them from Peking University in China did a survey that determined higher air pollution levels were linked to lower math and verbal test scores. If true, the Chinese government needs to clean up the air – and its ability is questionable at best.
I didn’t have to go much out of my way to find the examples I’ve listed in this column. But I hope the they encourage you to question surveys, polls and research whenever you come across them. A little skepticism is healthy!