Andrew Coyne: Politicians need to forget about polls and do the right thing

Great column by Coyne “rather trust the data:”

Liberals used to take a dim view of this sort of perception-based decision-making. When the Harper government claimed it didn’t matter if the official statistics showed crime rates falling to their lowest levels in decades, because people felt as if crime was rising, Liberals rightly scoffed. Now a similar fact-free feeling — the middle class is getting nowhere — is the foundation of their whole economic platform.

Liberals are by no means the only ones playing this game. Rather than answer questions raised by her signature proposal to subject every refugee, immigrant or tourist to a quiz on their belief in “Canadian values” — questions such as why this is needed, what it would accomplish, and what it would cost — Kellie Leitch refers to polls showing sizeable majorities of Canadians support the idea.

Likewise, those raising the alarm over Motion 103, unable to answer how a parliamentary motion with no legal force or effect could restrict free speech, have lately taken to citing polling data showing a majority of Canadians with varying concerns about the motion.

It’s easy enough to gin up a poll in support of just about anything, of course, depending on how you ask the question. The people waving them about today are in many cases the same ones who not long ago were railing ago about all the pollsters who failed to call Donald Trump’s victory (in fact, they called the vote to within a percentage point: Clinton beat him by two points, instead of the three points in the consensus forecast).

But let’s suppose these polls are genuine reflections of current public opinion. That’s a good answer to the question: what does the public think on these issues? It’s no answer at all to the question: are they right to think so? Yet that is how they are invoked: if that’s how the public feels, it must be true.

Skeptics are challenged, in tones of indignation: what, so you’re saying that millions of Canadians … are wrong?

Well, yes. What of it?

“Millions of people” are quite capable of believing things that aren’t true, particularly on matters to which they have given very little thought and with which they have little personal experience. The political science literature is filled with examples of people cheerfully offering their opinions to pollsters on entirely fictional events and people. As Will Rogers used to say, “there’s lots of things that everybody knows that just ain’t so.”

Climate skeptics rightly make the point that the overwhelming consensus of expert opinion on global warming is not enough, in itself, to prove it is right. Science is not a popularity contest: throughout history, individuals have stood against conventional opinion, and been vindicated, But let 1,340 randomly selected Canadians have their dinner interrupted to answer a question from a telemarketer about a subject they’ve barely heard of, and suddenly it’s gospel.

Experts, it is true, can sometimes be mistaken. But if experts can get it wrong, the public is at least as capable of it. And yet these days we are enjoined to reflexively reject the former, and just as reflexively to believe the latter. Perhaps we should rather trust the data.

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

One Response to Andrew Coyne: Politicians need to forget about polls and do the right thing

  1. Pingback: Canadians doubt anti-Islamophobia motion will have any effect, even if they support it: poll | Multicultural Meanderings

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