2357: Polls vs the Street
|Polls vs the Street
Title text: Other pollsters complain about declining response rates, but our poll showed that 96% of respondents would be 'somewhat likely' or 'very likely' to agree to answer a series of questions for a survey.
This comic discusses getting data or opinions through a study (polls) or by getting them anecdotally (on the street). The phrase "voice on the street" is commonly used by news reporters who get opinions on issues by literally asking people walking by what they think, and has been previously mentioned (and derided) in 756: Public Opinion.
Many news organizations, and other data-driven institutions, conduct or commission polls to assess the opinions of the general public. These polls generally rely on asking a randomly selected and anonymous set of people a set of consistent, prepared and deliberately crafted questions about their opinions, experiences, and intents. The results of these polls are traditionally held to reflect the views of the public as a whole, within certain margins for error. Many news shows also conduct "man-on-the-street" interviews (more formally known as vox populi, "voice of the people"), to provide a human face of "the public" and engage viewers more. Many pollsters, pundits, and politicians worry that polling data may not accurately reflect the true trends in public opinion, as in the infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper headline, and so White Hat is here extolling the virtues of interviewing "real people" to get at that ground truth.
White Hat suggests that, while polls suggest "candidate X" is more favored, the people on the street that White Hat interviews are more supportive of "candidate Y". He implies that his experiences reflect reality better than the polls. There are a number of reasons why polls may not be entirely representative. The sampling method might not be genuinely random, some groups might be less likely than others to respond to a poll, and it's argued that some people express views that they consider to be more socially acceptable, even in anonymous polls, but vote differently in actual elections (examples include the "Bradley effect" and the "shy Tory factor"). Despite these concerns, there is little evidence that individual conversations do a better job at determining public opinion than polling. However, attempting to get a person from off the street to report for a news anchor instead would obviously exacerbate all of these problems immensely, rather than fixing anything.
This comic is likely a reference to the 2020 United States presidential election, which occurred on November 3, 2020 (about 2 months from the time of the comic's publication), which Democrat Joe Biden won. Most polls showed Biden polling ahead of incumbent Donald Trump, but Trump and his supporters frequently argued that the polls are inaccurate, often arguing that they personally knew or talked to many Trump supporters, and few Biden supporters. At the same time, the fact that Trump won the 2016 election astonished many (including Randall) who had seldom met Trump supporters in their own lives and within their own social circles. This kind of anecdotal evidence is generally a poor basis for gauging public support, for multiple reasons. Politics in the US are frequently regional, so sampling in a single area is unlikely to be representative of the whole country, or even a whole state. It's common for gathering places (both physical and virtual) to attract people from one political group more than another, producing a skewed sample. If someone uses their own perception, rather than rigorous analysis, confirmation bias is likely to have a major impact (a person might pay more attention to supporters of their preferred candidate, and ignore political opponents).
This strip lampoons such thinking, as it quickly becomes clear that White Hat's methodology is heavily driven by selection bias. He's apparently talking only to the residents of his town, and extrapolating those results to the whole country. By that logic, he would conclude that everyone has visited his town, and most people live there. It is true that he's getting "ground truth", but it's also true that he's only sampling a very small (and highly idiosyncratic) part of the whole population.
The punchline in the final panel is a joke about the phrase "on the street". Usually this phrase means "anywhere out in public where the interviewer can openly approach people" (often a sidewalk near the studio), but White Hat is presumably taking the phrase literally and interviewing people he meets on the roadway. In the US, roads are generally reserved for vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles and in most areas bicycles), and walking or standing in the roadway for long periods is dangerous and usually illegal. White Hat's sample population thus consists only of the people who can be found on the roadway outside of designated pedestrian zones, who are generally from the small fraction of the population who have no qualms about the risks of being struck by moving vehicles or causing accidents when drivers swerve to avoid them.
The title text is a joke about selection bias (see Selection Bias) and tautology. People who don't feel like taking surveys wouldn't get as far as answering a survey question about survey questions. However, it does touch on an issue raised by FiveThirtyEight after the election: that polls only measure people who are interested in answering polls, and that population may not be politically representative of the entire country.
- White Hat: Polls are just numbers.
- White Hat: You have to talk to people on the street.
- White Hat: Polls say most people support <Candidate X>.
- White Hat: But the people I talk to on the street support <Candidate Y>.
- White Hat: Polls claim most people don't live in my town and have never been here.
- White Hat: But the people I meet on the street tell a very different story.
- White Hat: According to polls, most people don't like playing in traffic.
- White Hat: So why do I never seem to meet these people on the street?
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