If it feels like you’re already being bombarded with poll results, you’d better settle in because you’re about to see a lot more.Anyone who is curious about the upcoming election in the USA has probably noticed that polls are being released more and more often. In fact, there are so many polls being released,saying so many different things, that it’s hard to tell which one is right. Fortunately, we can offer you a few guidelines to make it easier.
1) There is no such thing as a “right” poll. Every poll is conducted with a unique group of people who have experienced the events of the past day and week in a unique fashion. Polls reflect opinions of the people who took it on the day they took it, not tomorrow and certainly not 3 months from now.
2) Strange poll results are normal. Researchers constantly talk about Margin of Error, Confidence Intervals, Statistical Significance, and other fancy terms. These are all simply ways of talking about the effects of random chance. Random chance means that we know and expect some poll results to be strange. To generalize, we expect that about 1 in every 20 polls will give us strange results. The problem is we don’t know whichpoll is giving the strange result.
3) Ignore today’s poll.The reason you’re hearing about today’s poll, whichever one it may be, it that there is something anomalous about it. Something so unusual or exciting or hopeful or depressing that you want to pay attention to it. And that’s why you shouldn’t. If you’ve seen the results of 20 other polls and this is the one that gets your heart pounding, then maybe, just maybe, this poll is the ‘wrong’ one.
4) Polls are for sharing. So what are we to do if we know there are no right polls and 5% (1 in 20) are ‘wrong?’ We can look at polls in combination, which isexactly what the website FiveThirtyEight does. By combining the results of many polls, they lessen the negative effects of relying on that one ‘wrong’ result, particularly since we don’t know which one is the ‘wrong’ one.
Perhaps the best way to think about polling is to treat them like your stock portfolio. Don’t look at them every day. Once a week is more than enough, and maybe once a month is better for your health!