Academic Problem with Polls

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

25138839379_3af950f359_b_jill-leporeWhen academics point out the problems with polls, they might wind up trying to regulate them. “Because one of the things I want to say about public opinion polls is that they are the child of a very bad marriage between academics and journalists,” Jill Lepore, a staff writer for the New Yorker, said in an appearance at Harvard last year.

Lepore also teaches at Harvard. “When modern public opinion polling began in the 1930s, the response rate—which is the percentage of people who answer a survey, of those who are asked—the response rate in the 1930s was well above 90,” Lepore said in remarks at the Kennedy School at Harvard. “By the 1980s, that rate had fallen to 60.”

“And pollsters began to panic, because they believed it was going to be impossible to continue their work if the rate fell below 30. It has since sunk to the single digits. A not uncommon response rate for an American public opinion poll is three.”

Perhaps not too surprisingly, she finds the results of polls distressing. “Turning the press into pollsters has made American political culture Trumpian: frantic, volatile, shortsighted, sales driven, and antidemocratic,” she said.

Her solution? “And while you can’t put the genie back in the bottle, there are a great many things that we are comfortable, as a political community, regulating, to improve the nature of our deliberative democracy,” she said at Harvard. “And one of them, I think, ought to be this industry.”

Photo by VCU Libraries