The Jan. 30-31 poll found that 49 percent of American adults said they either “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed with Trump’s order, while 41 percent “strongly” or “somewhat” disagreed and another 10 percent said they don’t know.
It didn’t take long to discover that my initial skepticism was valid.
Do half of Americans really support Trump’s executive order banning people from seven Middle Eastern countries?
Maybe. Maybe not.
It’s not possible to tell from this poll.
I kid you not.
Let’s begin with the fact that 44% of Americans are neither Republican nor Democrat in their political affiliation; these independents account for only 12% of this survey sample. The sample is overly partisan. Then there’s the use of a questionable “measure of accuracy” (credibility interval) for this online poll. The sad fact is that this poll/news story does more to stoke division than it does to explain our differences.
Let’s delve into the data (not what the journalists said about the data).
First, 14% of poll respondents said that they were unaware of the executive order. If you’re unaware, shouldn’t your answers about the EO be tossed out the window?
But when we get to the focus of the story, question TM1139Y17 (number 10), only 8% said that they were unfamiliar with the executive order. How can 6% of the survey respondents be simultaneously “unaware” and yet “familiar”? (Yes, I’m assuming the 8% is a subset of the 14%.)
In addition, 26% of the 1,201 respondents had “heard of it but [did] not know any details.”
Summary: 1-in-3 of those surveyed knew nothing about the executive order and yet their “opinions” inform the basis of the news story headline and lede.
Here’s that question (number 11):
Do you agree or disagree with the Executive Order that President Trump signed blocking refugees and banning people from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S.?
And here’s the response:
Second, immigration was the focus of the second question:
Which of the following is closer to your opinion: Banning people from Muslim countries is necessary to prevent terrorism or The United States should continue to take in immigrants and refugees?
No news here: 43% support a ban, 44% do not support a ban, and 14% did not respond.
Fewer people say that they support a ban to prevent terrorism than support the executive order.
That cognitive dissonance is jarring.
But the answers are revealing in another way.
This is an overly partisan sample, where the respondent ratio does not represent the political dynamics of the country; the opinions here demonstrate an extreme partisan divide. If the relative handful of independents in this poll accurately represent the 44% of Americans who told Gallup that they are independent voters, then this is simply a story of partisanship.
News flash! Republicans think the GOP president did the right thing; Democrats do not. Republicans think America should ban Muslim immigrants; Democrats do not.
Do you really think that lede would have generated clicks and shares and likes? Me, neither.
Political polls and how they are reported got a black eye in June in the UK and November in the US when election results and public opinion appeared to be at odds. Jon Cohen, formerly at The Washington Post and now at Survey Monkey, said in late 2016 that political polling is “facing a moment of reckoning.”
This poll, and the Reuters article pushing it, suggests that neither these pollsters nor news service agree.
Why does this matter?
Because, group polarization.
Social psychologists have determined that discussions among like-minded individuals (the group) leads members to hold a more extreme position than that “indicated by the members’ predeliberation tendency” (pdf).
Group polarization is linked to confirmation bias, which is our unconscious tendency to seek out and interpret evidence that reinforces – not challenges – our current beliefs.
Thus the Reuters flamboyant headline leads to sharing by those who agree, which further reinforces that belief in others when they see it.
Researchers at the University of Colorado have shown that “people often underestimate the effects of those conversations” on their opinions. Jessica Keating, a graduate student in CU’s psychology and neuroscience department, told reporters:
We argue that it’s basically impossible to do anything about the problem if you are not first aware of it. There is little incentive to seek out a diverse array of sources for information if you don’t know that having a less diverse array of sources is going to cause these effects…. If you only watch Fox News or you only watch MSNBC or you only talk to people who have similar ideas to you, our research suggests that you will, over time, become more extreme in your beliefs.
Ten years before Keating and her professors conducted their research, faculty at the University of Chicago Law School found similar results.
The result of deliberation was to produce extremism — even though deliberation consisted of a brief (15 minute) exchange of facts and opinions… The division between liberals and conservatives became much more pronounced… After deliberation, members of nearly all groups showed, in their post-deliberation statements, far more uniformity than they did before deliberation.
We are innumerate
In addition to being unaware of confirmation bias or how easily we might be influenced by a friend’s opinion, we’re not very good when it comes to understanding risk or probability or statistics. From David Spiegelhalter, the Winton professor for the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University:
We know that people think 30 out of 1,000 is bigger than 3 out of 100. We know that we make numbers look bigger by manipulating the denominator… I thought people would know that 3 out of 100 is equal to 3% is equal to 0.03. But they are very different… humans are very bad at understanding probability. Everyone finds it difficult, even I do. We just have to get better at it. We need to learn to spot when we are being manipulated.
Journalists need to do better, too.
Being able to critically assess “the news” in all its glory is a foundational 21st century skill we must master if we are to retain a democratic system of government.
Finally, a word about “who benefits”
It’s the first question the inspector asks in a murder mystery and it should be the first question we ask when a “news story” jerks our chain.
So who is Reuters?
The Reuter news agency was established in 1851 in London. In 2007-2008, the Thomson Corporation acquired its parent, the Reuters Group. At that time, Thomson controlled about 53% of the new company, Thomson Reuters, which required a waiver of the longstanding Reuters principle limiting maximum ownership by any one person or group to 15%.
As of March 3, 2016, The Woodbridge Company, a Canadian private holding company based in Toronto, owned approximately 59.6% of Thomson Reuters (pdf). Woodbridge is the primary investment vehicle for family members of the late Canadian newspaper mogul, Roy Thomson.
:: Cross-posted from WiredPen
:: Other writing on political polls: Pew/WaPost headlines overstate partisan opinion over NSA eavesdropping
:: Follow me on Twitter @kegill
Known for gnawing at complex questions like a terrier with a bone. Digital evangelist, writer, teacher. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill, wiredpen.com