Wednesday, 27 September 2017

How not to design a questionnaire. Lord Ashcroft's dangerous political polls.

Lord Ashcroft has had a big impact on election polling in the UK. He has even had favourable mentions with Nate Silver on his blogs. But I have been taking a deeper look into his polls.

I have to admit to some political activism and I was previously a Liberal Democrat Councillor. I collected canvassing data and fed it into the party's own analysis program and it makes predictions about the state of your campaign. Most of the time it got it pretty close to right and I won by the amount I expected. That was small local scale analysis.

Lord Ashcroft is well known and a Tory donor and he has been running polls in both the UK and more recently in the US. He conducted a lot of focus groups around the Trump election and also the Brexit vote. What concerns me is not the polls and the data, but the way the polls are carried out. Most specifically the questions that are used.

I was reading a story on CapX by Robert Colville about the demographic disaster awaiting the Conservative Party and he used some very particular phrasing.

If people think that multiculturalism, immigration, the internet, the green revolution and feminism are forces for good, they will vote Labour/Democrat. If they think they are bad, they will vote Tory/Republican.

Now who exactly thinks in those terms? Oh yes, there is a force for good and I am behind it 100%. People just never say that. Oh that is a force for evil/bad, I am really against that. These phrases are straight from Lord Ashcroft's poll published in his book Hopes and Fears. Participants had to chose on a scale whether they thought that:

  • Feminism
  • The green movement
  • The internet
  • Multiculturalism
  • Immigration
have made America better or worse.

I use these questions for my second year statistics class as examples of non-scientific questions. These are in fact sound-bites and propaganda disguised as poll questions. They provide a frame of reference to lead participants towards where the person asking the questions wants to take them. The questions are based on invoking feelings and reactions and not actually obtaining rational responses.

Take for example this more detailed question.

Thinking about the following changes in America over recent years, do you think they have made America better or worse?
More lesbian and gay couples raising children
How can lesbian women and gay men raising children have ANY effect WHATSOEVER on whether a country is better or worse? What does it mean for a country to be better or worse? If it means economically less successful then how do lesbian and gay couples raising children affect the economy? If it means the country has gotten worse because of a rise in crime then again how is this caused by lesbian and gay couples raising children? The responses to this question will be pure framing based on current personal experience. If your standard of living has declined recently then you will respond that America has become worse, but the relationship to lesbian and gay couples is forgotten in the question. I could have asked the same question about America getting better or worse and used "More Bush family members raising children" and I would get the same response.

This sort of question is nonsense. It is intended to bias and put words into the participant's mouths by limiting the spectrum of possible causes. The motivation behind these polls is generating easily digestible journalistic content. They can then summarise the poll by saying a majority of participants think that feminism or multiculturalism has made America/UK worse. These are leading questions and the poll is at best meaningless and at worst pure propaganda. Polls like this are designed to influence the opinions of participants and not to actually discover what their opinions are.

We need to think seriously about the impacts of polling carried out in this way, as for me it raises ethical concerns about how they are being carried out and how they are being used.