Reviewed by Thomas Riggins
This is an important book to read, especially during this electoral season. It's not very long (161 pages) but thoroughly explains how public opinion polls are manipulated in this country to produce the results wanted by those who use them to influence and shape public perceptions of reality. As professor Mark Crispin Miller of New York University says, the book presents "A powerful argument that polls do not merely misinform us but pose a genuine, if subtle, threat to our democracy."
The author, David W. Moore, knows what he talking about having been a senior editor for the Gallup Poll for thirteen years. Anyone who wants to know how the polls are used to manipulate public thinking could do no better than to buy this book, either from Beacon Press or through Amazon.com. In the meantime, between now and the election I will go over the salient points in the book so that readers of PA and of our blog will be better prepared not to be taken in by questionable polls. Today I will begin with the preface.
Moore begins by reminding us, with a quote (from political scientists Lawrence Jacobs and Robert Shapiro): "Whether DEMOCRATIC government survives is not foreordained or guaranteed. What is critical is creating the expectation that substantial government responsiveness to public opinion is appropriate and necessary." [This brings to mind Vice President Cheney's response to being informed that the majority of the American people were against the Bush administration's policies in Iraq. "So?"]
Public opinion polls are ONE way that the American people's will can be expressed. But, as Moore says, "For years, we pollsters have systematically misled the American people about the accuracy of out polls."
Polls do state a margin of error but the following statement should be attached to every poll: "In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls." Moore, in fact, when at Gallup included that statement in a report to a client who had commissioned a poll. The client's response was "It essentially says you can't trust any of the numbers. What good is a report like that?" Since this would make all polls doubtful, Moore says that the polling industry and their clients just ignore this qualification.
What this means is that polls are "rough estimates" and not, as they try to claim to be, "precise reflections of reality." If you check closely "you will see large variations among highly reputable polling organizations." [I would question the use of the tern "highly reputable"!]
Which polls does Moore have in mind. The four most important are The New York Times/CBS News Poll, The Washington Post/ABC News Poll, Pew Research, and the USA Today/Gallop Poll.
Other polls he mentions that are less influential are CNN, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, Associated Press/Ipsos, Los Angeles Times, Fox, John Zogby [sometimes with Reuters], and Harris Interactive.
What do these polls all have in common? They "give us distorted readings of the electoral climate, manufacture a false public consensus on policy issues, and in the process undermine American democracy."
Stay tuned to see how they do this. Coming up, a review of Chapter One:
"Iraq and the Polls-- The Myth of War Support".