This is an updated version of a post from way back before the 2010 election, which I felt needed another airing. Thankfully comments along these lines don’t turn up very often in the comments here, but I see them with depressing frequency on Twitter when poll results are released…

1) The polls are ALL wrong, the real position is obviously X

Er… based on what? The reality is that opinion polling is pretty much the only way of measuring public opinion. We have some straws in the wind from mid-term elections, but they tend to be low turnout protest votes, don’t tend to predict general election results and are anyway quite a long time ago now. Equally a few people point to local government by-elections, but when compared to general election results these normally grossly overestimate Liberal Democrat support. If you think the polls are wrong just because they “feel” wrong to you, it probably says more about what you would like the result to be than anything about the polls.

2) I speak to lots of people and none of them will vote for X!

Actually, so do pollsters, and unless you regularly travel around the whole country and talk to an exceptionally representative demographic spread of people, they do it better than you do. We all have a tendency to be friends with people with similar beliefs and backgrounds, so it is no surprise that many people will have a social circle with largely homogenous political views. Even if you talk to a lot of strangers about politics, you yourself are probably exerting an interviewer effect in the way you ask.

3) How come I’ve never been invited to take part?

There are about 40 million adults in the UK. Each opinion poll involves about 1,000 people. If you are talking about political voting intention polls, then probably under 100 are conducted by phone each year. You can do the sums – if there are 40,000,000 adults in the UK and 100,000 are interviewed for a political opinion poll then on average you will be interviewed once every 400 years. It may be a long wait.

4) They only interview 1000 people, you’d need to interview millions of people to make it accurate!

George Gallup used to use a marvellous analogy when people raised this point: you don’t need to eat a whole bowl of soup to tell if it is too salty, providing it is sufficently stirred a single spoonful will suffice. The same applies to polls, providing an opinion poll accurately reflects the whole electorate (e.g, it has the right balance of male and female, the right age distribution, the right income distribution, people from the different regions of Britain in the correct proportions and so on) it will also accurately reflect their opinion.

In the 1930s in the USA the Literary Digest used to do mail-in polls that really did survey millions of people, literally millions. In 1936 they sent surveys to a quarter of the entire electorate and received 2 million replies. They confidently predicted that Alf Landon would win the imminent US Presidential election with 57% of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes. George Gallup meanwhile used quota sampling to interview just a few thousand people and predicted that Landon would lose miserably to Roosevelt. In reality, Roosevelt beat Landon in a landslide, winning 61% of the vote and 523 electoral votes. Gallup was right, the Digest was wrong.

As long as it is sufficent to dampen down sample error, it isn’t the number of people that were interviewed that matters, it is how representative of the population they are. The Literary Digest interviewed millions, but they were mainly affluent people so their poll wasn’t representative. Gallup interviewed only a few thousand, but his small poll was representative, so he got it right.

5) Polls give the answer the people paying for it want

The answers that most clients are interested in are the truth – polls are very expensive, if you just wanted someone to tell you what you wanted to hear there are far cheaper sources of sycophancy. The overwhelming majority of polling is private commercial polling, not stuff for newspapers, and here clients want the truth, warts and all. Polling companies do political polling for the publicity, there is comparatively little money in it. They want to show off their accuracy to impress big money clients, so it would be downright foolish for them to sacrifice their chances with the clients from whom they make the real money to satisfy the whims of clients who don’t really pay much (not to mention that most pollsters value their own professional integrity too much!).

6) Pollsters only ask the people who they know will give them the answer they want

Responses to polls on newspaper websites and forums sometimes contain bizarre statements to the effect that all the interviews must have been done in London, the Guardian’s newsroom, Conservative Central Office etc. They aren’t, polls are sampled so they have the correct proportion of people from each region of Britain. You don’t have to trust the pollsters on this – the full tables of the polls will normally have breakdowns by demographics including region, so you can see just how many people in Scotland, Wales, the South West, etc answered the poll. You can also see from the tables that the polls contain the right proportions of young people, old people and so on.

7) There is a 3% margin of error, so if the two parties are within 3% of each other they are statistically in a dead heat

No. If a poll shows one party on 46% and one party on 45% then it is impossible to be 95% confident (the confidence interval that the 3% margin of error is based upon) that the first party isn’t actually on 43%, but it is more likely than not that the party on 46% is ahead. The 3% margin of error doesn’t mean that any percentage with that plus or minus 3 point range is equally likely, 50% of the time the “real” figure will be within 1 point of the given figure.

8 ) Polls always get it wrong

In 1992 the pollsters did get it wrong, and most of them didn’t cover themselves in glory in 1997. However, lessons have been learnt and the companies themselves have changed. Most of the companies polling today did not even exist in 1992, and the methods they use are almost unrecognisable – in 1992 everyone used face-to-face polling and there was no political weighting or reallocation of don’t knows. Today polling is either done on the phone or using internet panels, and there are various different methods of political weighting, likelihood to vote filtering and re-allocation of don’t knows. In 2001 most of the pollsters performed well, in 2005 they were all within a couple of points of the actual result, in 2010 the pollsters overestimated Lib Dem support, but were very accurate on the gap between Conservative and Labour.

9) Polls never ask about don’t knows or won’t votes

Actually they always do. The newspapers publishing them may not report the figures, but they will always be available on the pollsters’ own website. Many companies (such as ICM and Populus) not only include don’t knows in their tables, but estimate how they would actually vote if there was an election tomorrow and include a proportion of them in their topline figures.

145 Responses to “REPOST: Too frequently asked Questions”

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  1. What was the polling in 1997 that didn’t cover pollsters in glory?

    I don’t remember that…I thought the polls suggested a comfortable Labour victory?

  2. NickP – The polls predicted a landslide Labour victory, there was a landslide Labour victory, so everyone was happy.

    Because the big picture was correct, not much attention was paid to the details – Labour won by about 12 points, while some of the late polls had been showing 20 point Labour leads (there was a MORI poll two days before the election that showed a 24 point Labour lead).

    The other difference is that ICM got the 1997 election pretty much right, whereas in 1992 all the pollsters got it wrong.

  3. @AW

    A good read. It amazes me how much I’ve learned about polling since finding this site in 2009. Mind you, I was starting from a pretty low base! :-)

  4. I wonder if this is another example of the lazy Lab voter. If the poll predicts a landslide a good few won’t bother voting as they think Lab is going to win anyway (?)

  5. Yes I remember the 20-25 point leads – and there were several between 12 and 20 too, I think – and being surprised that the margin was so (relatively) low.

    Like 1983, the overall result was about the easiest to call for a long time, just a case of how big a landslide. I suspect the next election will be one of the harder ones to predict.

  6. Nick – It may have been part of it, I can’t recall how turnout was being dealt with at the time.

    However, the basic problem was outdated methodology – most pollsters (with the exception of ICM) were still using the same methods as in 1992, when they got it wrong by the same sort of amount in the same direction but it was a very close election!

  7. Wish YouGov published the undecideds.

  8. Don’t knows are always on the full tabs (as they are with all companies). Was 14% yesterday, which is fairly typical.

  9. AW…………I represent a certain cohort, and will offer my VI, FOC, to Yougov, as a goodwill gesture should you need to beef up the numbers. :-)

  10. @Anthony Wells

    Thank you for the repost: brilliant as always. I’ve heard the Gallup “dont need to eat all the soup to tell if it’s salty” analogy before. If you’re interested, the remark “They don’t need to take all your blood for a blood test” plows the same furrow, although you’ve probably heard that one before as well.

    Regards, Martyn

    Many thanks for this fine work

  12. “if there are 40,000,000 adults in the UK and 100,000 are interviewed for a political opinion poll then on average you will be interviewed once every 400 years. It may be a long wait.”

    I don’t know if I’ve got the wrong end of the stick here, but this sounds like a miscalculation to me. Some people will be sampled in more than 1 poll, and many online pollsters get the people who are being polled from signup survey sites – ie some percentage of who is being polled will be repeatedly polled. So actually it should be less likely than once every 400 years.

  13. But what about when people *know* what the polls should say, and are *really really* sure? Surely even you must accept that being *really really* sure is better than ‘polling’?

  14. Quincel

    I think being really really sure only counts if you also “feel it in your bones”.

  15. Interesting piece. My objection is not to using VI Polls as one piece of evidence, comparing like with like. I do object to people using polls wrongly, as though they can simply be put into a swingometer & the result of the next GE read off. Dothat in the mid-term of any recent Parliament & you get ridiculously low seat numbers for the Libdems.
    Compare Libdem polling now with that 5 years ago & you get a more plausible prediction of a vote share in the high teens for 2015, between 1997 & 2001.

    As to what else to use, VI polls arent the only Polls for a start. Leadership approval polls produce very different results with Cameron way out in front & Clegg & Milliband roughly equal 2nd.

    You are to harsh about Local byelections, as long as they are taken in big chunks – 2 or 3 months at a time they are quite a good predictor of Local elections in terms of vote shares. Gains & losses are more complex of course.
    Of course Local elections are different, Libdems & Independents do better & Labour worse. The gap with GES varies yes, but not by that much. Knock 4% off the Libdem vote share & you wont be far out at the next GE.
    This is a polling site, naturally it will concentrate on polls but there are other indicators out there.

  16. Of course only one of the above is actually a question – but let it pass. :P

    One more, perhaps less frequently (but still too often) made statement is:

    There is a 3% margin of error. Not always. Because most samples have traditionally been around 1,000 and this gives a margin of error of around 3 points[1]. It has become a belief in some quarters that all opinion polls have this margin. But the MoE[2] will be less for a larger sample and more for a smaller one[3].

    This adjustment also applies to sub-samples of any opinion poll. If your original sample of 1,000 contains 85 Scots voters say, for any statistic you derive from those voters[4],the equivalent MoE will be 10.6 points not 3.1.

    A subtler version of this actually applies to most published opinion polls. When they work the percentages for each Party, most British polls ignore those in their sample who say they don’t know or they will not vote or who refuse to answer with their voting intention. This means the effective sample size is reduced to those who did give a party name in answer. For example in the latest ICM poll, the sample of 1013 only contains 617 who gave a VI. So what would look like a nominal MoE of 3.1 is actually 4.0[5].

    [1] This is helps avoid what is an unfortunate ambiguity. A margin of error of 3% on say 50% might either imply a range of 47% – 53% or 48.5% – 51.5% (ie using 3% of 50%). Using ‘points’ makes it clear that you mean the first of these.

    [2] Rather illogically I’m using this a shorthand for margin of error rather than ‘moe’ so you don’t think I’ve mistyped ‘more’ or am referring to one guy named Moe.

    [3] It’s also affected by other factors, most importantly the size of the percentage you are trying to estimate, and the whole situation is more complex, but this will do to be getting on with.

    [4] You Know Who You Are.

    [5] In ICM’s case it’s complicated by their reallocation policy, but I doubt it makes much difference.

  17. But people have (in their eyes) much more of a reason to be angry with national lib dems than local.

    Previously, most people didnt have a massively strong opinion about the lib dems, they were seen (rightly or wrongly) as the opt-out choice. There isnt really such a choice now. I think ICMs method will work the best as to lib dem scores. 11-14% is pretty accurate imo. They do have the best record going back.

    Look at the Scottish national elections if you want a post-2010 general election turnout guide!

  18. I think there may be some truth in 5, in a lot of cases of publicised polls. People doing private polling for research want accuracy, people wanting to get in the papers want something that sounds good for them.

    I’m fairly sure I’ve seen Anthony mention this himself from time to time. Branston pickle announcing polling shows 99% of people agree some pickles can be tasty, or whatever.

    Doesn’t apply to political polling so much ofc.

  19. Paul Barker – that’s because the personal vote of Lib Dem MPs is more important than for other parties and they are probably better able to resist a tide against them, its a problem of UNS, rather than the polls (it was particularly bad during the last election as Electoral Calclus, which a lot of people used, at the time used the Proportional Loss hypothesis to project numbers, which was absurdly harsh on the Lib Dems.

    It is possible to predict levels of support using Local govt by-elections, but the only way it produces useful figures is the Rallings & Thrasher model, which is now very complicated to do, and is increasingly difficult to do because of the intervention of minor parties and the main parties skipping contests (according to Michael & Colin they are increasingly seeing parties that are going to get hammered at a local by-election sitting them out, which biases the data they have to work with).

    Anyway, the proof of the pudding – I did some testing using the actual data from past elections here: Simple conclusion is that unless you have a very fancy R&T style model such projections will overestimate Lib Dem support.

    The Rallings & Trasher method is now more complicated than this (it involves dummy values for parties not contesting wards and factoring down the Lib Dem support to try and counteract the fact that the method always overestimates their support) and doesn’t have a bad record at predicting local elections, but is rather patchy at general elections.

    Wood – the bias you get there is publication bias. If Branston had found that 99% of people hated pickles the poll would still be in their filling cabinet. In my experience it does not happen with voting intention polls – newspapers don’t always use them (especially in the era of daily polling), but they are always released into the public domain.

  20. Richard Warburton – actually the figure is indeed lower now, as there are fewer political telephone polls than there were then (ICM and Populus do less regular polling and ComRes are now partially online).

    For pollsters using online panels it obviously doesn’t apply. If you sign up to a panel you will almost inevitably be included sooner or later in a political poll.

    Interesting enough though I still see comments like that about YouGov polls. e.g. “I am on the YouGov panel and I didn’t get this question about socks! Why not?”. The reason, of course, is that samples are pulled from the wider panel to be demographically representative, they don’t go to the whole panel.

  21. Number 7 is particularly problematic with respect to US elections, as American journalists will almost invariably describe a result within a couple of points as “statistically tied”.

  22. @ R Huckle (from the previous thread)

    “This article and the comments may interest Socialliberal and others. Comparison between US hospital treatment and NHS.”

    Thank you for that article. I was actually born at that hospital. I don’t criticize the NHS or attack it for the level of care and services or the amount of funding it requires. From what I know, the NHS is a great system overall and has benefitted millions. My opposition to creating a replica in the U.S. is more due to a fundamental philosophical point.

    I don’t want my healthcare to be reliant on the actions of government officials and for the level of care I receive to be dependent on the outcome of an election. So a neighbor of mine had lived in Britain for a few years before moving back to the U.S. and he described his experience with the NHS in glowing terms. He had some sort of minor surgery where he had a clean facility, a good doctor, good nursing care, and a successful operation and it was all covered and even included a car and driver sent by the hospital to pick him up and drive him home after his surgery. Here’s what strikes me as problematic though. If Gordon Brown can spend all sorts of money improving the NHS and making it patient friendly, David Cameron can cut all those benefits and perks in the name of “austerity.” I think that makes citizens’ healthcare vulnerable to the whim of government officials. That’s something I don’t want.

    When it comes to Obamacare, we can already see a little bit of this in this ridiculous contraception fight. Contraception is extremely important. It helps liberate women and make them equals in society and it is vital for responsible family planning. Contraception is also something very important to the health of women and has a wide variety of beneficial medical uses for women far beyond birth control (treating things as serious as ovarian cancer to minor things like acne). It’s expensive though. And if you don’t have health insurance or are not independently wealthy, good luck getting it.

    So it is a very good thing that the Obama Administration is going to mandate that contraception not only be covered but that it be free without a copay (given your very patient detailed explanations of the NHS to me, I assume Scottish women get contraception for free and English and Welsh women have to pay the 7 pounds for it) where the insurance companies will simply have to pay for it. But the thing is, this isn’t mandated by the actual Obamacare law. This is a decision made by President Obama himself.

    Now, think about the vulnerable position that millions of women will be placed into under this scheme once it goes into effect. They will be able to access contraception for free and will rely on this in their daily lives. But what happens if President Obama loses reelection? All of his Republican opponents oppose contraception. They believe it’s immoral and claim this is an attack on “religious liberty.” Now this isn’t mandated by law. So President Santorum or President Romney could easily move to take this away. Suddenly, women who were covered and reliant on their insurance plans to cover contraception find that they have to pay for it out of pocket. That’s a deep concern to have.

    And it goes back to a basic philosophical point for me. I don’t want the government being the decision maker on my healthcare and I don’t want my own healthcare to depend on who is in office.

  23. I think contraception is free on the NHS but I could well be wrong.

    My snip cost nowt anyway.

  24. @ London Statto

    “Number 7 is particularly problematic with respect to US elections, as American journalists will almost invariably describe a result within a couple of points as “statistically tied”.”

    Actually, I agree on all of Anthony’s points except for #7. Well actually, I don’t disagree. I’d rather be ahead by 1% than be behind by 1% in a poll even with a margin of error. I still think a race though at that point is statistically tied.

    @ Anthony Wells

    “In the 1930s in the USA the Literary Digest used to do mail-in polls that really did survey millions of people, literally millions. In 1936 they sent surveys to a quarter of the entire electorate and received 2 million replies. They confidently predicted that Alf Landon would win the imminent US Presidential election with 57% of the popular vote and 370 electoral votes. George Gallup meanwhile used quota sampling to interview just a few thousand people and predicted that Landon would lose miserably to Roosevelt. In reality, Roosevelt beat Landon in a landslide, winning 61% of the vote and 523 electoral votes. Gallup was right, the Digest was wrong.”

    What’s interesting about that one is that the polls predicting Landon as a winner were skewed because while they interviewed far more people, they interviewed people who were wealthy enough during the Great Depression to own their own telephones or wealthy enough to subscribe to a magazine. It’s not surprising that these voters tended to skew Republican.

    “Polls always get it wrong”

    Polls usually get it right of course. I think when they get it wrong, it’s because they weren’t able to pick up on a late breaking trend towards another candidate or another party.

    The only time where polling was consistently off and came up with all sorts of numbers that didn’t match final results was in the 2008 Democratic Primary. It didn’t happen in every state but there were a lot of blown polling calls. I think it’s mainly because the polls did not account for a lot of new voters. However, it’s important to note that the exit polls were by and large correct.

    So in New Hampshire, the pre-election day polls had Obama up by huge and increasing margins over Hillary. Those polls were wrong. However, the exit polls showed a dead heat race that was too close to call. So I don’t think the science of polling is flawed.

  25. “And it goes back to a basic philosophical point for me. I don’t want the government being the decision maker on my healthcare and I don’t want my own healthcare to depend on who is in office.”

    Do you want it to depend upon ability to pay instead?

  26. @ Nick P

    “I think contraception is free on the NHS but I could well be wrong.”

    That’s good. Also, I don’t think you’ll ever elect anyone crazy enough who would try to take away contraception or make it hard for women to obtain. I mean, if a group of Conservative MPs told David Cameron that they wanted to hold Parliamentary hearings on the great evils of contraception (and only invite men to testify), I think Cameron might kick them out of the party.

  27. @ Nick P

    “Do you want it to depend upon ability to pay instead?”

    No, and this has been a HUGE problem. People have their lives destroyed because of illness when they don’t have insurance. These insurance companies also find any reason they can to decline you for a pre-existing condition. For those of us who are healthy and deal with this situation, it’s an annoyance and a frustration and a “wtf moment.” For those who develop terminal illnesses, the result is far different.

    It also hurts people who are unemployed and people who attempt to become self-employed.

    But this will all be changing next year. So that’s a good thing.

    The Swiss have shown that you can cover healthcare for all citizens without having a public health authority. They just heavily regulate their private health insurance companies. The Swiss are the most capitalistic people on the planet. If they can do it, so can we.

  28. “Polls always get it wrong”

    According to Boon and Curtice (on average) polls for the 2010 election were underestimating Con -1%, Lab -2% and overestimating LD +3% (see link).

    YouGov for example in the last week was something like Con -2%, Lab -2%, LD +5%.

    Can we say that compared to picture immediately pre-2010 GE, the polling companies are now diverging – in terms of the amount they are underestimating/overestimating the VI of parties?

    And can we be confident that the recent record of relative accuracy will be preserved in the run up to 2015?


  29. @ Martyn (from a few threads ago)

    “Yes you can. My point was not that you have to work in an existing private firm first, my point was that you have to work in an existing firm first (which can be public[2][3][4] or private). The qualification process has an experiential element, and if you can’t get the “legal traineeship”[1]…you can’t be a lawyer. Existing lawyers decide who the future lawyers will be, with entirely predictable results. The career of SCJ Stanley Mosk which you outlined is impossible in England and Wales.”

    Here’s what I’m trying to figure out. Do you need to have this experiential element while you’re in law school or is it after law school? In other words, do you pass the Bar and then find yourself required to practice with a firm before you can practice on your own. Or is it a situation where you graduate law school, you go to work for a firm, and only then can you qualify for admission to the Bar?

    Stanley Mosk had a longtime research attorney who was disabled. As Mosk said, no one else would hire this brilliant attorney simply because he was disabled.

    Mosk is a rarity though. His career, which was a political one too, was brought about by economic constraints. I think it’s a wise idea to gain practice experience before you practice on your own. However, I’m glad that’s not a requirement and I’m glad that one’s Bar admission doesn’t depend on it.

    Of course, in CA (and people laugh at us for this), you don’t even have to attend an accredited law school in order to take the Bar. However, you do have to take a First Year Law Student’s Exam if you choose that option.

    “Lawyers don’t have a monopoly on legal matters per se: priests oversee marriages, for example, which is a legal matter, as is a doctor signing a death certificate. Lawyers have a strong position on legal advice and a monopoly on presenting legal disputes. Disputes arise where there is more than one interpretation, and legal advice arises when there is uncertainty. If a law was simple and automatic then there would be no interpretation needed and no uncertainty. It should be possible to make conveyancing, divorce, and probate so simple and automatic that legal advice becomes superfluous. You do not need a lawyer to buy beans despite the fact that that’s quite a complicated legal process with a lot of case law. Why do you need one to buy a house?

    The above paragraph is in the nature of a thought experiment: I do not expect you to agree with the position, it is a didactic tool illustrating that law and its execution can be quite simple.”

    No, no it’s cool. I like thought experiment. It’s good. It’s why I like blogging here. It gets me to challenge my own worldviews and my own political views and my own assumptions.

    To my knowledge, you don’t need a lawyer to buy a home. You technically don’t even need a real estate agent (although you should probably use one and if you do, they need to be properly licensed). You can also write your own wills and handle your own probate without a lawyer. However, I wouldn’t reccomend it because there are a number of things that can go wrong and there are a number of things that lawyers know that lay people don’t in the area of estates and trusts where a lawyer can be very helpful in setting things up properly. Think about it this way. Half of the U.S. states allow for holographic wills (handwritten and signed by the testator) and half don’t. So what if you handwrite out your own will and sign it because you knew of some distant relatives who did it just fine, meanwhile you’re not aware that your own state doesn’t allow holographic wills and what you’ve left is pretty meaningless.

    Divorces should be simple (that’s the one great thing Reagan did….the no fault divorce). But when you have disputes in a divorce proceeding (over things like custody, division of property, child support, spousal support, etc.), it’s good to have lawyers handling the matter.

  30. Anthony, is there a difference on accuracy between online and telephone polls given the online samples are self-selected and telephone ones aren`t?Would that make a difference?

  31. @ SoCaL

    Contraception has been free for women throughout the UK for as long as I can remember. And of course surgery is free for both men & women, should they choose the ‘permanent’ option.
    Actually, if they then chose to try reversal of a ‘sterilisation’ surgery that’s generally free too; as is treatment for other fertility issues – so it’s not all about people limiting their families, it is about choice in the size of family which a person wants.

  32. Smukesh – the *samples* are not self-selecting, the panel is (which is an important difference!). Qualitatively there isn’t much difference anyway given the very low response rate to telephone polls (Martin Boon of ICM as quoted it as being down to 1 in 12 or so now) – there is massive self-deselection in phone polls.

    Judging accuracy is tricky to do. You quite often see the naive approach of taking final polls before elections, but there is a margin of error of plus or minus 3 points and most polls are within the margin of error these days, that is actually largely random (and that’s before you take into account that many pollsters do fancy things to their final poll that they don’t do in normal polls). Jennings, Ford, Fisher et al had a better go at measuring accuracy based on surveys throughout the campaign, but it’s sadly not available online (taking that into account MORI, Opinium and ComRes ended up performing the best in 2010)

    At the last election OnePoll and Angus Reid, both online, were the least accurate… but TNS also did badly (face-to-face at the time), while Opinium (online) did well, so it’s not really a mode difference (and for the record, the reasons for OnePoll and Angus Reid doing badly are pretty clear, and neither was down to mode)


    Thank you for the illuminating answer…I looked at the last Youguv poll prior to the 2010 election and it was pretty close …So well done for your modesty too

  34. 7) There is a 3% margin of error, so if the two parties are within 3% of each other they are statistically in a dead heat
    This one is my favourite. I always deduct 3 points from the Tories & add 3 to Labour. It brightens up my day. :-)

  35. AMBER.
    Good Evening to you.

    But the adding and subtracting leads us into denial.
    Denial stops us from freeing ourselves from damaging habits.

    Happy Lent.

    Did you know Lent has the same etymological root as lengthening? (As in hours of the day)

    Professor Dawkins started Lent by announcing in his Oxon debate with Archbishop Rowan Williams that he is no atheist now, instead an agnostic.

  36. The worst election for pollsters was 1970 – everyone had Harold Wilson winning by at least 5% . Even the Tories were surprised .

  37. @ Chris Lane

    To be human is to be in denial most of the time.

    And I was joking about the 3 points thing; it was intended as humorous hyperbole referencing all the times when eagerly awaited polls show a small lead for one or other Party which is immediately dismissed as being ‘all within the MOE’, often for partisan reasons. :-)


    @”Professor Dawkins started Lent by announcing in his Oxon debate with Archbishop Rowan Williams that he is no atheist now, instead an agnostic.”

    “I’m ‘6.9 out 7’ sure that God does not exist” makes him an agnostic by the skin of his teeth :-)

    Nice to see Williams confessing his belief in evolution, and agreeing with Dawkins that humans shared non-human ancestors.

    A very gentle & civilised exchange by all accounts.

    That’s the way it should be.

  39. Colin

    From what I read about the debate it seemed both parties were scared of being seen as the “nasty” one. It seemed more along the lines of gentle sparing with predictable pre-rehearsed arguments.

    I certainly would have followed up that line with something along the lines of “Do you believe the god had a direct hand in our evolution from our common ancestor or was it no different that any other natural evolution?”.

    I’m sure I would be more respectful now than I was at the age of 8 when faced with a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who tried to explain to be how fossil remnants were just lies placed there by the devil to trick us.

  40. Alan.

    Predictably, it was the origin of the Universe which produced the significant divide between them.

    Re JWs-my own ploy is to agree to read their literature if they will read some pages from my books on Evolution & Paleontology-or accounts of the Lewisian gneiss.

    They always decline the invitation.

  41. @SoCalLib

    A quick terminology check: do not use the phrase “pass the Bar” in an England context. To English ears it elides together two concepts (“passing the written examinations”, and “attaining the rank of barrister”) which do not mean the same thing. In England and Wales, it[1] goes like this:

    * Step 1: pass exams
    * Step 2: do work experience
    * Step 3: gain approval of qualified “barrister”/”solicitor”
    * Step 4: obtain rank of “barrister”/”solicitor”

    In England and Wales, you never get to step 3 and 4 without step 2, and you never get to step 4 without step 3. Step 1 and step 2 may be concurrent[1] or consecutive[2], but step 1 is always on/before step 2. As I said, Mosk simply couldn’t happen in E&W.

    Regards, Martyn

    * [1]: legal executives take a different route, where steps 1 and 2 are undertaken at the same time over a number of years
    * [2]: the usual path for barristers and solicitors
    * h ttp://
    * h ttp://

  42. @ Anthony

    I was going to say: Quick, moderate Colin’s post before it ‘kicks off’ all the usual suspects (myself included) but you beat me to it. :-)

  43. @ Amber Star

    “Contraception has been free for women throughout the UK for as long as I can remember. And of course surgery is free for both men & women, should they choose the ‘permanent’ option.
    Actually, if they then chose to try reversal of a ‘sterilisation’ surgery that’s generally free too; as is treatment for other fertility issues – so it’s not all about people limiting their families, it is about choice in the size of family which a person wants.”

    That’s a very good thing. I’m glad we’re going to be joining you Brits in the 21st century. As for fertility, I’ve noticed that none of these moron sexist bigots seem to have any problem with Viag*ra.

    I don’t actually think that Obama’s regulation is going to cover sterilization in full. I think it mainly covers traditional forms of contraception.

    I wonder what Maggie Thatcher thinks about forcing women seeking abortions to have transvaginal probes (and having any images permanently included in her medical record) or passing legislation defining any fertilized egg as a person (criminalizing both birth control and miscarriages). Or would have prior to her illness.

    (FYI, that little creep Bob McDonnell (R-VA) has run away from his own record after public outcry. You have to admire politicians who strongly take positions on certain things and author legislation only to reverse his opinion and condem his own legislation after public outcry against it).

  44. I suspect that Dawkins has little reason to debate in an aggressive manner with Williams. The religious establishment of the likes of Williams is prepared to listen to rational argument and change its mind. Hell, even the Catholic church eventually admitted that it had erred in its treatment of Gallileo – even if it took 300-odd years for the apology to emerge. The role of rational religion is to act as a conservative bulwark against radical thought. Its job is to apply some viscosity into what would otherwise be a fast-flowing stream of societal and philosophical change. I can accept, even admire that approach, even if the particular instances are often infuriating.

    Where Dawkins has little option but to argue aggressively is when faxed with the flat-earth fundamentalists. Anyone who sees the scientific method as the greatest tool ever discovered by humankind is engaged in a Manichaen struggle for the future direction of humanity with the sort of fundamentalist, anti-scientific religious approach that has swept across swathes of America. Dawkins is lambasted for being aggressive, but there is no meeting halfway with an opponent like the religious Right. It’s the most important battle in the world today and it won’t be won over tea and biscuits in a civilised debate.

    As for Dawkins being agnostic rather than atheist, it seems to me to be the only rational position for a scientific person to hold. It’s all about the hypothesis you need to explain your universe. Religious people need a God. Scientific people, to quote Laplace, have no need of that hypothesis. But they cannot disprove it.

  45. Colin

    Well arguing about the origin of the universe is pointless as 1) noone knows. 2) It doesn’t really matter.

    I’d push along the line of “are we no more than a strange mutated ape with a fascination for digital watches?”*

    If the AoC accepts evolution then it’s a small step to accepting the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds. I can’t help but think of the poor missionaries sent to convert the Littlegreenmanists to Christianity. Telling them that god isn’t green with almond eyes and didn’t make them in his own image will probably be a hard sell.

    *I probably wouldn’t phrase it quite like that!

  46. @ Socal

    But this will all be changing next year. So that’s a good thing.

    You hope! 8-)

  47. @Anthony Wells

    You have now ruined life for pub bores for the next decade. For which I offer you my sincere thanks. :)

  48. Good Evening.
    Stuck in, as chess match is off, sadly.

    No one in the mainstream churches under the age of 70, that I know does not believe that Genesis is a mixture of myth, poetry and legend.

    Have a good Lent!

  49. @ SoCaL

    I must say, it wouldn’t occur to me to consider what Margaret Thatcher would think on any issue!

    My opinion, which is worth precisely zero to the political debate, is that most anti-abortion campaigners are batsh*t crazy & do their own cause more harm than good.

    The majority appear to view pregnancy as ‘retribution’ for promiscuity; if a woman dodges her punishment by having a termination then another way to ‘punish’ her must be found.

    They appear to have zero regard for the health & future prospects of the children which they aver to care so passionately about. In short, their hypocrisy & viciousness fills me with rage. I had best say no more on this topic because I am passionate about children’s rights to be wanted & to have the best possible prospects of a decent life. I will wear out my welcome, if I don’t restrict my pontificating rants on these topics.

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