Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Online Poll Nonsense

Good news for people who like the idea of nuclear power in Idaho! An online poll conducted by the Boise-based Idaho Business Review found that 65 percent of about 500 respondents favor nuclear power development in the state.

But wait, there's more.

The poll (get ready for a shock here, folks) may have been gamed by both sides of the nuclear power debate.

The poll results may track responses from people who don't live in Idaho.

The poll, then, is meaningless.

My experience with online polls is that the motto tends to be "Vote Early, and Vote Often." Especially if the poll is on a topic as polarizing as nuclear power.

These polls are easy to game. Want to vote more than once? Go right ahead; just disable the cookie function on your web browser. Want to skew the results? Send out an e-mail -- or a blog post -- to everyone you know who is passionate about the topic. Doesn't really matter if, in this case, the respondents don't technically live in Idaho, or if the respondents decide to try a few simple tricks to Fake the Vote. What matters is that your side wins.

In the case of this particular poll, it's hard to believe state policy-makers would take it seriously as they gague support for nuclear power and research in the state. It's clear that Areva, for instance, chose Idaho for its billion-dollar uranium enrichment plant because of support shown by state and local officials and the public at large not through a meaningless poll but through actions taken to show support for the company coming to Idaho via public meetings to legislation granting the company tax breaks if they build here. And it's clear that the Department of Energy will continue to support nuclear research at the Idaho National Laboratory because the department knows the research has board support in this part of the state.

The only purpose these kinds of online polls serve is to stir up the activists on either side of any kind of debate. They have impactful public relations value on people who don't realize how easy they are to game or to skew. And if they don't go in the direction that the activists want, well, they just find data that does go the way they want, and all is right with the world. Or they rely on misinformation, disinformation and other trickery that is just as easy to fool the public with as is an online poll.

I'm not a genius, but I know enough about statistics that whenever I see a poll, I want to read between the lines. I want to see the data, not read how it's spun either by reporters or by those who sponsored the poll in the first place. I want to see what's really going on, not what I'm being told by a journalist or blogger. So don't take my word for it, either.

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