The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Posts Tagged ‘polls’

Election 2012 and a Reminder that Pollsters are B.S.

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 22, 2012

As we ramp up for yet another frenzied political season where, no doubt, there will be much drama and mudslinging, I’d like to leave you all with this one thought: for the most part, political polls and pollsters are bullshit.

This article does a good job explaining why…

Pay no attention to the pollster behind the curtain

There are many ways to keep score on whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney has better odds of winning the general election, which is almost exactly six months away. Here at The Signal, we are fervent evangelists of the political prediction markets, where people place real money on the line to bet on the winner. These markets proved to be more prescient than polls in the Republican primary.

Many journalists prefer to stick to reporting on raw daily polls. While these surveys offer valuable information, it is dangerous to read too much into the daily fluctuations, especially this far in advance. Currently, Rasmussen has Romney leading Obama 49 to 44, while Rueters/Ipsos has Obama leading Romney 49 to 42. This disagreement is due to several common sources of error that occur on any poll. Averaging several polls to get an aggregate figure, as RealClearPolitics does, helps ameliorate these errors.

Upcoming work by Bob Erikson of Columbia and Chris Wlezien of Temple, recently presented at the Midwest Political Science Association conference, demonstrates a second problem with following the daily polls too closely. The researchers looked through past presidential elections, aggregated the national polls, and created the most effective forecast based on that data. They found that, even when properly aggregated and averaged, national polls do not have predictive power at this point in the cycle. … [emphasis added]

You can read the entire article to get the gist of how untrustworthy most politically-oriented polls can be, but I think it is said even better by skeptical magicians Penn & Teller 🙂

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National Science Foundation Omits Evolution Polling Data from Report

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 11, 2010

I found out recently, through an article in Science Magazine (the official journal for the American Association for the Advancement of Science) that the National Science Foundation has released a report which has actually omitted polling data regarding evolution & the big bang.  Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot?!!

Needless to say, this story is getting a LOT of attention from science supporters…

From the National Center for Science Education: What happened to evolution at the NSB?

And PZ Myers at Pharyngula chimes in: Let’s hide that embarrassing conflict in American culture

Here is the actual Science article in question:

Evolution, Big Bang Polls Omitted From NSF Report

In an unusual last-minute edit that has drawn flak from the White House and science educators, a federal advisory committee omitted data on Americans’ knowledge of evolution and the big bang from a key report. The data shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang.

They’re not surprising findings, but the National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs.

“Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” that “downplays the controversy” over teaching evolution in schools, says Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom. The story appears in this week’s issue of Science.

But why is it this information, which has been part of every previous Indicators report to date, been removed at the last minute without any oversight?  Here’s a clue…

Board members say the decision to drop the text was driven by a desire for scientific accuracy. The survey questions that NSF has used for 25 years to measure knowledge of evolution and the big bang were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs,” says Louis Lanzerotti, an astrophysicist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology who chairs NSB’s Science and Engineering Indicators Committee. …

The board member who took the lead in removing the text was John Bruer, a philosopher who heads the St. Louis, Missouri-based James S. McDonnell Foundation. He told Science that his reservations about the two survey questions dated back to 2007, when he was the lead reviewer for the same chapter in the 2008 Indicators. He calls the survey questions “very blunt instruments not designed to capture public understanding” of the two topics.

“I think that is a nonsensical response” that reflects “the religious right’s point of view,” says Jon Miller, a science literacy researcher at Michigan State University in East Lansing who authored the survey 3 decades ago and conducted it for NSF until 2001. “Evolution and the big bang are not a matter of opinion. If a person says that the earth really is at the center of the universe, even if scientists think it is not, how in the world would you call that person scientifically literate? Part of being literate is to both understand and accept scientific constructs.”

So what exactly was the offending material deleted from the report?  Here you go…

The deleted text, obtained by ScienceInsider, does not differ radically from what has appeared in previous Indicators. The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.

So rather than report the honest truth about the state of scientific literacy in the United States on these topics, it seems the NSF has chosen to hide the embarrassing facts.  But, thankfully, it didn’t work.  We cannot change the poor state of science education in this country by hiding such information, either to save political face or to kow-tow to religious fundamentalists who push creationism; rather, we must face the challenge head on.

Posted in creationism, education, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

Polls & Surveys on Creationism/Evolution

Posted by mattusmaximus on March 25, 2010

If you pay attention at all to the creationism/evolution struggle, then you know that (in the United States) there is a great group dedicated to furthering good science education while battling the attempts of creationists to push their extreme religious & pseudoscientific flummery into public schools.  That group is the National Center for Science Education, and now the NCSE has another tool to use in the fight.  NCSE has put together a great webpage which tracks polls & surveys on the issue…

Polling the creationism/evolution controversy

NCSE is pleased to announce a new section of its website that provides information on polls and surveys relevant to the creationism/evolution controversy. You’ve seen the alarming statistics:

  • Evolution is accepted by 97% of scientists in the United States, but by only 61% of the public.
  • Among thirty-two countries surveyed, the United States was next-to-last for its public acceptance of evolution.
  • One out of eight high school biology teachers in the United States presents creationism as scientifically credible.

Now you can find it all in a single spot — NCSE’s coverage and links to external resources — organized in the categories of general polls, international polls, polls on creationism, polls on evolution, polls on religion, and scientist, student, and teacher polls.

Specifically, all of the polling & survey information is broken down and sorted into a variety of very convenient categories for your perusal…

So the next time you need to reference a poll when in the midst of a discussion of the creationism/evolution issue, you have a great resource.  In addition, I just want to give a general shout-out to the NCSE because they are, in my humble opinion, the go-to folks for dealing with creationists.  In fact, I encourage you to support them by becoming a member!

Posted in creationism, education | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Why So Much of Polling is B.S. — F**k You, Frank!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 3, 2009

“The numbers don’t lie” goes an oft-quoted saying… and that’s true, for the most part.  Numbers don’t lie, but what does lie is the people who are reporting the numbers.  The recent brouhaha over health care reform in the United States has brought this fact about numbers & statistics into stark relief of late.  Most people, when they read a poll, don’t really think about the numbers all that much, or they are too innumerate to really understand what they’re reading – which is how so many are easily manipulated.  And oftentimes the polls are self-contradictory.

For example, look at this recent article – which is, refreshingly, a good example of critical thinking in the modern media – concerning the question of polling public opinion on health care reform…

Health care polls leave pols dizzy

Legislators hoping to learn what their constituents think about the issue — and how to vote to keep them happy — face a dizzying deluge of hard-to-reconcile data, some of which suggests that voters are more than a little confused, as well.

What to make of it, for example, when one poll finds that 63 percent think “death panels” are a “distortion” or “scare tactic,” and only 30 percent think the issue is “legitimate,” while another finds that 41 percent believe that people would die because “government panels” would prevent them from getting the treatment they needed?

Or when one survey finds that 55 percent of Americans support the public option, while another says 79 percent favor one — but also notes that only 37 percent people surveyed actually knew what “public option” meant?

And because there is such ambiguity in these polls, those with an agenda can usually cherry-pick whatever data they want to make a case for their particular argument.  Even changing the wording of a particular question just slightly can have a huge impact…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in mathematics, media woo, politics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Polls, Evolution, and Science in the 21st Century

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 20, 2009

Sometimes people wonder why I spend so much energy addressing pseudoscience, specifically creationism, in this blog.  Well, some recent news out about U.S. attitudes concerning science and specifically evolution (the linchpin of biology) spells out why it is so important to fight against the anti-scientific agenda of the creationist movement (and pseudoscience in general).

The Pew Research Center recently released a survey where the U.S. public’s views on evolutionary science were compared to those of the scientific community…

“Nearly all scientists (97%) say humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while only 61% of the public agrees, according to a new report (p. 37) from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Asked which comes closer to their view, “Humans and other living things have evolved over time” or “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time,” 97% of scientists responding chose the former option, as opposed to only 2% choosing the latter option; 61% of the public responding chose the former option, as opposed to 31% choosing the latter option.

Those who chose the former option were also asked whether they preferred “Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection” or “A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” Among scientists, 87% preferred the former option and 8% preferred the latter option; among the public, 32% preferred the former option and 22% preferred the latter option. Members of the public were also asked whether scientists generally agree that humans evolved over time; 60% said yes, 28% said no.

“Views on evolution vary substantially within the general public,” the report observed (p. 38), “particularly by religion and attendance at religious services.” For example, among white evangelical Protestants responding, a majority, 57%, agreed that humans existed in their present form since the beginning of time, and among those respondents attending religious services weekly or more often, a near-majority, 49%, agreed. In contrast, among the religiously unaffiliated responding, 60% agreed that humans evolved due to natural processes. Also correlated with acceptance of evolution were youth and education.

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Damn Lies & Statistics: Who’s Counting?

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 18, 2009

In the United States, tax day (April 15th) has just passed, and this year we had a rather interesting series of anti-tax events organized by Fox News called “Tea Parties”. The organizers of these events were, at one point, estimating perhaps millions of people in attendance.

fox news tea party

To me, the interesting thing about events like this is the numbers of people that are reported to have attended. In an attempt to apply a version of the argument from popularity, organizers of such events will tend to over-estimate attendance while those in opposition to such events usually try to downplay those same numbers.

Sometimes, when we see polls or statistics being reported in the media or by some interest group, the numbers are presented to us as what Dr. Joel Best (author of “Damned Lies & Statistics”) refers to as “little nuggets of truth”. However, a deeper analysis of such reports often presents a very different picture.

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