Caution the key when checking people's pulse

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 June, 2010, 12:00am

What do we think? To find out, politicians and policymakers often consult opinion polls. Done properly, they give an accurate portrait of a community's attitudes, beliefs, opinions and preferences. But what are we to make of the dozen or so surveys leading up to tomorrow's vote by legislators on the government's electoral reforms? Contradictions abound. One by the pro-Beijing Liberal Party showed almost half those interviewed backed the reforms; another by the democracy-supporting Middle Class Power found the opposite.

We clearly need to treat studies of this nature carefully. Those who agreed to take part in the polls were asked all manner of questions, from whether they supported the reforms to who should be blamed if the proposals were voted down. Politics would seem to be playing a part in some surveys; which are accurate and which aren't cannot readily be determined.

Polling, when done properly, can be quite precise. But conducting good survey research is not easy. The questions have to be carefully worded and indicators of the opinions the pollster is trying to measure. Those taking part have to be chosen randomly and genuinely representative of the community, with similar proportions of men and women covering the spectrum of political views, age groups, education attainment and income levels.

Caution is necessary when reading public opinion polls. We should look at how questions are worded, who is asking them, who is behind the study and what they stand to gain from it. We have to be aware that how an interviewer is dressed, their tone, the order of the questions and the circumstances under which the poll is taken can influence the outcome. And it's certainly not unheard of for carefully skewed polls to be conducted to offer misleading impressions of public opinion.

Everyone seems to want to know what we think. The government, universities and political parties among others bombard us with consultation papers, opinion polls and surveys. Paradoxically, the one gauge of our views that most matters - choosing the chief executive - is denied us. But even in democracies, polls are essential to take the collective pulse. Whoever is assessing their results, though, has to treat them with caution and ensure that all the opinion-taking boxes have been checked.