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article imageCan We Trust Election and Political Opinion Polls?

By Carol Forsloff     Jul 14, 2009 in Politics
According to recent news Congress is tightening up research rules. That’s because some research is manipulated for greedy purposes. But what are the rules that can allow trust in political research and what are the issues involved?
Congress has declared financial conflict involved in research is something which needs to be monitored. The National Institutes of Health recently published rules and responsibilities of applicants for federal projects. The hope is to ensure those who receive funding will abide by certain ethical principles and to promote objectivity in research, especially when public funding is involved.
Dr. Aubrey Blumsohn has taken on this issue because of his concern that lack of proper conduct can upset scientific results and be utilized erroneously as a means of controlling money and power. He gives several cogent guidelines to help folks know something about the rules written by Robert Merton, called Mertonian Ideals in the literature:
1. Organised skepticism: (Nothing is ever taken on trust)
2. Universalism: (acceptance of the integrity of research relies on its merits, and not the black/white/Jewish/Hindu status of the resercher, or whether that researcher is a funded opinion leader like Martin Keller or Richard Eastell)
3. Communalism: Sharing of information, absence of secrecy (inappropriate refusal to release data or methodological information makes work unscientific by definition)
4. Disinterestedness: (Not committed to any ideology - able to criticize and accept research based on its merits, not on a prior view that "vaccines are bad", or "doctors are corrupt")
So can research be taken on trust? Political research is often used to set the tone for discourse among citizens. For example, political opinion polls were used to discuss the candidates during the last Presidential election, as well as previous elections. People got news about what the public believed concerning Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, John McCain and Joe Biden, the final candidates in the race for President and Vice President.
Sarah Palin
Sarah Palin waves to supporters.
Jordann James
They also read and heard information about candidates during the primaries, so candidates like Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney were discussed in terms of both gender and religion. So should the public believe these polls? The Mertonian Ideals gives some platform for reviewing research, but there are other issues, especially those concerning the particular biases of those receiving information from the news.
Governor Mitt Romney
Governor Mitt Romney
Academics maintain we should consider, for example, the religious biases of those receiving the poll information about Mitt Romney and the gender biases about Hillary Clinton, which academics also consider important in determining trust in polls.
If a political think tank established by a political party makes a conclusion, #4 of the Mertonian Ideal declares results be looked at with skepticism. Academic research maintains one must examine citizen bias as well. So how do different groups of people view political research especially opinion polls?
An academic publication article in political science examines the trust issues related to political research. The author, Mary Currin-Percival, describes the methodology in first establishing trust as a dependent variable in her examination of the issue concerning trust in political polls. She looked at whether respondents thought public opinion polls were in the best interests of the public, whether or not surveys accurately reflect the national opinion, and whether or not if allowed to repeat participation in a Pew Poll forum whether or not the respondent would choose to do so.
What Currin-Percival found was the more conservative politically a person is the less the individual trusts poll results. Higher education is also found not to be associated with increased trust in polls. Currin-Percival further observes those who watch news on television have more trust in polls. This finding, she notes, reflects the need for further research into the ability of polls to be persuasive in their results.
Those who check research results and polls will likely find criteria for accepting or rejecting information, according to those looking at the belief factors involved, if the Mertonian criteria is used as a yardstick and the relative bias of those receiving the information is recognized, as suggested by Currin-Percival’s observations. In other words, research can be done by the rules and still not be believed by members of the public because of political bias or the manner in which news is received.
So when we read a certain fraction of the public doesn't believe Sarah Palin is a viable candidate for President we can examine the Mertonian Ideals and the biases of the public referencing the information in general as well as the respondents view of polling in particular. Similarly if we hear Barack Obama's status in the polls is declining, again we have a platform for reviewing the data, to include our own bias and that of other people receiving the information in terms of the responses made. Congress declares bias is important enough, particularly given the greed involved, to tighten up the rules as a result. That alone may help improve veracity of the results and the public trust in them.
More about Opinion polls, Obama, Sarah palin
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