Three Types Of Lies
I went to the doctor recently, and he told me I needed to lose a few pounds and see him again in six months. Well, okay… by recently, I mean December, and I haven’t exactly followed up with him yet. I’ll put that on my “To Do List.” But I have been trying to lose weight… honestly, I have been.
In order to keep track of the pounds as they melt away, I use a digital scale. Now, since I work with electronics and most of you probably don’t, I’ll spare the details of how the circuitry works. Let’s just say that, in order to get a quick reading, the scale has to sacrifice some of its accuracy. The end result is that, when I weigh myself, I wind up having to step on it a few times to get a ballpark idea of my weight. The scale can be off by 20 pounds in either direction, or it can be dead accurate… I have no idea which after just one reading. So, trend analysis becomes important.
The same thing happens with election cycle polling. In the case of my scale, because it was designed to give a quick readout, the sampling circuit (don’t worry… I won’t go into detail!) doesn’t allow the scale to settle before it takes the measurement. In polling, in order to get a quick result, fluctuations are often not taken into account. Actually, there is a lot that isn’t taken into account. For instance, polls of likely voters are usually more accurate than polls of registered voters. Accuracy is also directly related to sample size. Even little factors like time of day (which voting blocs will be home to participate in polls in the middle of the day?) and calling areas (especially if nationwide polling is done in predominantly one time zone) can affect polling accuracy.
This isn’t a knock on pollsters… well, it isn’t a knock on most pollsters. Even those with partisan interests are normally going to try to be reasonably accurate; even if they may do what I do on my scale… keep taking readings until you get a few numbers you can feel comfortable with, or can at least spin into something positive. Think of this as your primer on polls as we gear up for the exciting part of the election cycle.
Oh, one other thing to keep an eye out for- and this is true any time you hear a number/time frame combination- is to note the time frame. For instance, gas prices have gone up around (rough guesstimate here) 250% since President Bush took office. That sounds bad, right? That equates to around two dollars per gallon. Gas prices have only gone up 40% since Democrats took control of Congress. Sounds better, right? That equates to around one dollar per gallon. So, in actuality, half of the price increase over the last seven-and-a-half years happened in the last seventeen months, since the Democrats took control of Congress. But, the percentages listed above make it sound like the bulk of the responsibility lies with President Bush.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Mark Twain: “There are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Hopefully, this quick tip will help you make sense of the numbers that will come flying at you this election season.
And, for the record, I’ve lost five pounds.*
(* That’s ten pounds lost and five gained back again…)