People from all backgrounds - - campaigners and ordinary citizens alike - - frequently cite opinion polls as if they were the gospel truth. Sometimes the poll results predict the future (like what our favorite cereal may be), and other times not so much (like who will be the next President). We have all been accepting the results of opinion polls as an indicator of public opinion for a long time…and these polls either visibly or invisibly shape policy and thereby impact how our investments in science and technology are shaped.
Are opinion polls important? What is the science behind them? Are they sophisticated analyses or back of the envelope calculations? Should we trust what they say? Can they be manipulated and misused? Is the science behind collecting and aggregating people opinions developing and becoming more accurate or are opinion polls a developed area of social science? In these days where opinion polls seem inextricably linked to what we see in targeted advertising, these questions are important but not often explored by the technology community.
More than 80 years ago, George Gallup published his first official release of public opinion data. Gallup set out to provide scientific, impartial calculations that described America’s public opinions. But, even after 80 years, people are often deeply skeptical of polls, especially when opinion moves in the “incorrect” direction or is the opposite of what they hope for.
The 2016 US presidential election raised questions about the methodology and accuracy of polls in America, but the problems of confidence in election polling aren't limited to just the U.S.. Some high-profile errors include the final polls in the 2017 British general election, in which Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority, had the Conservatives ahead, though their margins differed significantly. These and other “misses” have led people to ask, do polls ask the right questions? Are they manipulating the wording of questions to get the responses they want? And who are the people actually answering the questions? Are polls being swayed by the political parties, marketers and media giants that pay for the polls? Where is the science?
In the ultimate irony, an opinion poll about opinion polls, The Hill-HarrisX poll found that the majority of people are doubtful about the survey results they hear about. Maybe more troubling, however, was that 15 percent of respondents said they "almost always" believed in polls they heard about in the press. So…rather than relying on opinion polls about opinion polls, on innovation unleashed we decided to get back to a source for the ground truth!
John Dick is the CEO of CivicScience. CivicScience provides strategic insight services to decision-makers at the largest brands, media companies, and investment firms in the world. In 2007, CivicScience emerged from John’s vision that market research and opinion-gathering needed a new solution. Perhaps before the rest of us, he understood that consumer and public-oriented businesses that had long relied on traditional polling and survey techniques found those methods were growing tired and less effective in reaching a representative audience. The emergence of social media sharing brought convenience and immediacy of the public’s voice to the table, but also inherent biases and untrustworthy information. His ambitious goal was to develop a revolutionary new way to connect the real-time opinions of consumers to the decision makers who need that information every day – but to do so with renewed depth, breadth, and reliability.