11% of likely planets distrust polls

Posted: May 24, 2012

As the presidential campaign heats up, we should look closely at a faraway object for a lesson about polls.

Billions of miles away from us, Pluto spins happily around the sun, ignoring all polls and surveys. We would be wise to adopt its attitude.

In 2006, a poll of pocket-protector-wearing, hungover, disco-bobulated astronomers determined that Pluto wasn’t a planet after all. (Officially, we now have only eight planets in the solar system; Pluto was sent to the kiddies’ table.) It is now variously referred to as a “dwarf planet” or, more commonly, just an asteroid.

But last year, the Hubble Space Telescope identified yet another moon revolving around Pluto, which makes for a total of four. That’s pretty impressive for a body without planetary status.

News outlets are going to be pushing polls on us for the next few months as the November election approaches. There will be polls pitting President Obama against Mitt Romney in a variety of scenarios. There will be polls to gauge the public’s mood on everything from the economy to women’s hats in church.

So here’s a quick guide to reading polls:

First, size matters: The smaller the poll, the less representative it likely is.

That 2006 vote on Pluto is a great example. In August of that year, the International Astronomical Union met in Prague, in the Czech Republic, for a 10-day conference. As with any professional conference, there were plenty of “social activities.” On the eve of the last day, for example, a free “disco party” was thrown for the delegates. Wouldn’t video from that event be interesting?

The number of astronomers attending the morning session dwindled each day, according to reports. Only 2,700 of the organization’s 9,000 members attended the conference in the first place, and by the final morning, only 800 showed up. That may have had something to do with the disco party the night before.

And of those 800, only 424 cast ballots on the Pluto question.

Did that poll represent how most astronomers feel about Pluto?

Within days, hundreds of Astronomical Union members who either had not attended the conference or had left before the last day circulated a petition opposing the decision. The majority of astronomers, it turns out, were quite willing to leave poor Pluto’s dignity intact.

This clearly demonstrates that polls can be skewed by any number of factors, including size. And Czech beer.

A second important thing to consider is just whom the poll is polling. There are polls that sample the public, “registered voters,” or “likely voters.” In general, the polls surveying “likely voters” are more accurate.

And polls will list a “margin of error.” This is an expression of uncertainty based on sample size and the “confidence interval.” A poll that lists a three-point advantage for Candidate X and acknowledges a margin of error of plus or minus five points doesn’t mean very much.

Polls do have their uses. They can help candidates focus on issues that voters want to hear more about, for example.

But for the most part, polls are merely fodder for discussion among political types, and they’re rarely a true reflection of reality.

Just ask those disco astronomers. But not too loudly — they don’t feel well.

Roy Maynard is opinion page editor at the Tyler (Texas) Morning Telegraph.