Sometimes voodoo polls are so blatantly idiotic it feels almost superfluous to point out they are worthless. Surely no one, no one at all, could mistake them as legitimate measures of public opinion. On one level that’s probably right, but on the other hand, staying silent just encourages them.
Once upon a time lots of newspapers did silly voodoo polls, but over the years they have faded in prominence – probably because for a while they were truly ubiquitous, with every TV channel and newspaper website having silly “press the red button” or “ring this number” surveys which eventually bored everyone into submission. More positively, when the media does use them these days they do at least normally refer to them in a responsible manner – putting in appropriate caveats about them not being representative or referring to them showing x number of their readers think, rather than projecting actual results from it. I’d still rather they didn’t exist at all – since many people don’t realise the difference between properly conducted polls and voodoo polls they damage the whole reputation of the market research industry – but publishing them with caveats is better than without.
Nevertheless, when they turn up in massive font on the front page of a national newspaper claiming to be meaningful they demand appropriate mockery. Today the Express reports that “An exclusive poll conducted on the first day of our crusade showed an astonishing 99 per cent of people agree we should quit the European Union.”
It would be astonishing were it a proper measure of public opinion but, of course, it wasn’t. It is a result of inviting Express readers to phone one of two premium rate phone numbers to say whether or not they think Britain should leave Europe, advertised in the middle of a two page spread about how awful Europe is.
Obviously the context of the question is extremely skewed, the sample will be exclusively made up of people who read stories about Europe in the Daily Express (or people to whom the phone number was subsequently sent on to) and who care enough about the issue to waste their money phoning up to vote, there is unlikely to be any attempt to properly sample or weight the data, nor protections against multiple voting, nor preventing pressure groups organising people to ring up en masse. Yes, in this case it’s blindingly obvious that the poll is bunkum – but do remember the same caveats apply to all other polls that don’t take appropriate sampling or weighting measures to obtain a representative sample.
Properly conducted opinion polls on the subject of Europe show varying levels of support for leaving the EU – if you give people a straight option of saying whether or not they think Britain should withdraw though, support and opposition tend to be pretty even.
I suspect the Express didn’t find the results that astonishing anyway, since almost all of their own phone “polls” find 99% of so of respondents agree with the more reactionary option. There’s a fantastic archive of Daily Express “polls” on their website here, including such astonishing findings of 98% of respondents agreeing that “This Labour government wrecked the NHS”, 99% thinking “Labour’s treatment of the elderly a disgrace”, 98% thinking it is time to “ban immigrants” and 99% saying they are fed up with ditching British traditions. Funny that.