How to Manipulate Opinion Polls

Couple of days ago, I was watching the classic British sitcom ‘Yes, Prime Minister’. For those who don’t know, ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ was a sequel to ‘Yes, Minister’, the show that introduced political satire to the mainstream population. Anyways, this episode contained a very interesting dialogue between PM’s Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby and PM’s Private Secretary Bernard Woolley. The plot of the episode centered on the British Prime Minister’s idea to reintroduce conscription which he justified using the results of the favorable opinion polls.  When Bernard brings up the point of opinion polls in favor of conscription in a discussion, the ever-cynical Sir Appleby lectures him on how any government can get favorable results from any type of opinion poll. Sir Appleby asks Bernard two different sets of questions that lead up to two different answers on a single issue by single person. The dialogue goes something like this:

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there is lack of discipline and vigorous training in our Comprehensive Schools?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think young people welcome some structure and leadership in their lives?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do they respond to a challenge?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Might you be in favour of reintroducing National Service (conscription)?

Bernard Woolley: Er, I might be.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Yes or no?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Of course, after all you’ve said you can’t say no to that. On the other hand, the surveys can reach opposite conclusions.

Hmm?

Hmm?

[survey two]

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Are you unhappy about the growth of armaments?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there’s a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think it’s wrong to force people to take arms against their will?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

Sir Humphrey Appleby: Would you oppose the reintroduction of conscription?

Bernard Woolley: Yes.

[does a double-take]

Sir Humphrey Appleby: There you are, Bernard. The perfectly balanced sample.

So, opinion polls are very easy to manipulate. You just need to ask the right questions to get the ‘right’ answer. Hence, always approach opinion polls, especially the government ones, with caution and skepticism.

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