As election season nears, we will be hearing more and more poll numbers — who is up, who is down, what “Americans” think about the economy, government, the Democrats, etc. — but what does all this polling really mean? Is the purpose of polling to tell us what “most people” think? Is it to influence us about what we should think? Is the purpose to be the first (i.e. best) news outlet to call the election, to see the future?
In one example, from one of the most reputable polling companies, only 1,019 people were questioned during a 3-day period when any number of things could be influencing their response (including how the poll question was worded). However, if the media repeats the poll conclusions often enough, don’t we start to believe that “the majority of Americans (fill in the blank)”?
And therein lies the problem with polls.
If the media started flooding the airwaves with dozens of reports that the world was flat, or that we are being attacked by aliens, wouldn’t more and more normally reasonable people start to believe it? As Bill Maher has said, “We shouldn’t decide everything by polling the masses. This is the fallacy called argumentum ad numerum, the idea that something is true because great numbers believe it.”
Polls purport to be about the key issues of the day but they don’t actually disseminate any useful information to address those issues in a meaningful way. Speaking about the media, Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, said, “We’ve stopped telling stories that capture the public imagination… poll results have replaced stories. And so we’re not connected with the pain out there, with what’s happening. And with the solutions.”
And that example I mentioned earlier that questioned 1,019 people? It’s a Gallup poll that declared, “Majority of Americans Distrust the Media.”