Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Snowden, Polls and Critical Thinking

As you know from things I wrote before, I’m becoming increasing wary of public opinion polls and the people who write about them. Mark Mellman’s blog post, “Have We Been Snowdened?” raised my curiosity on the subject. Below is a summary of the data he writes about in his column. And, as a full disclosure comment, I’m aware, and you should be also, by summarizing the data as I did I’m altering exactly what each survey reported.

The person who leaked information about this secret program did a good thing in informing the American public or a bad thing
ABC/Washington Post
The NSA surveillance program was classified as secret, and was made public by a former government contractor named Edward Snowden
Snowden leaked information to the press about NSA’s monitoring of phone and Internet usage
Releasing the top secret information about government surveillance programs was the right thing or wrong thing to do

First, I couldn’t verify all of the data he reported, specifically the YouGov poll. And, when I went to look for this poll’s data (because Mellman changed the format of how he chose to report the results) I found even more polls on the subject. In browsing some of the poll data, I found that it makes a big difference whether you ask a question about Snowden, his actions, or what NSA is doing. I also have no guarantee that the sampling is valid in any of the polls, or whether the statistics employed is valid because of complex system effects. Moreover, the results depend upon when the poll was taken.

I’m not so interested in the results of these polls that I’ll invest the research and critical thinking time to find out what the public may think about this issue. However, look at the word usage in the polls – “leaked” and “secret” in the Time poll; “surveillance”, “NSA” and “government contractor” in the ABC poll; “leaked”, “press”, and “NSA” in the Reuters poll, the only one to mention “Phone” and “Internet”; “top secret”, “government” and ”surveillance” in the YouGov poll. These are all words likely to shift a person’s response to the statement.

My sole reason for writing this is just to alert you to critically examine any polling important to you. There are many ways to alter the response, or to “skin a cat” as the old saying goes[1].

[1] “Mark Twain used your version in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1889: “she was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat”, that is, more than one way to get what she wanted.” http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-mor1.htm

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