The Arizona Desert Lamp

Survey-ocracy

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 25 September 2008

As I referenced briefly in this week’s Senate report, ASUA has a bit of a fetish when it comes to surveying the student body. Many of the current Senators ran on the ASUA PULSE platform, which would use polls to determine student opinion on major issues facing the Senate.

You would think that the populists behind “Your student government” would be more willing to put matters of importance to a vote, to best represent the will of the people. However, ASUA has already done this, and repeatedly got answers that they didn’t like to hear. President Bruce made this apparent during a presentation on the Student Affairs Fee (SAF). Once upon a time, major issues such as fee increases actually went to a vote. The result, however, was unsatisfying to ASUA, as students roundly rejected the increase in the fee. Sent back to the drawing board, ASUA decided that they simply didn’t need to bother with votes anymore; instead, they conducted a poll among a representative sample of students, and waved this survey as proof of student support (for all of the sordid details, read this post). None of this, however, has sullied the Senate’s love of surveys.

So what, exactly, is so flawed about the survey process? This week’s events nationally highlight the issues of using polling to drive decision-making. Many polling organizations are conducting surveys on the American response to Paulson’s $700 billion bailout. Should Congress approve this proposal? Following the ASUA approach, let’s go to the polls:

Earlier today we previewed a new Washington Post/ABC News poll that suggests Americans are split down the middle on the Bush administration’s $700 billion rescue package for Wall Street.

However, two new polls show completely different results. One suggests the public overwhelmingly favors a bailout; another finds the public firmly opposed.

Pew Research: “By a margin of almost two-to-one the American public thinks the government is doing the right thing in investing billions of dollars to try to keep financial institutions and markets secure.”

Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg: “Most Americans don’t believe the government has responsibility for bailing out financial firms with taxpayer money, a core part of the rescue plan Congress is considering to halt the near-meltdown of the nation’s financial markets.”

What accounts for such a divergence of opinion? According to ABC’s Gary Langer, it’s all in how pollsters ask the question. The Pew poll asks about the government ” ‘potential investing’ (note: not ‘spending’) billions ‘to try and keep financial institutions and markets secure.’ ” Naturally, people favor this plan. However, when asked by the LA Times/Bloomberg whether the government should “bail out private companies with tax payer dollars,” people sour on the idea.

Sadly, these polling results are far more consistent than anything ASUA will concoct. Why?

1. These surveys are conducted by professional pollsters with experts and money at their disposal. Suffice to say, ASUA is not contracting Rasmussen to poll the student body. Instead, the polls used are fraught with basic statistical errors, leading to huge amounts of selection bias (in voluntary polls, people in support of a given proposal are far more likely to participate than those who are not) and a failure to obtain a representative sample of the student body, a lack of a statistical confidence calculation, and poor question formulation. An online poll does not a legitimate survey make.

2. ASUA itself is conducting the polls. This is akin to the Treasury Department conducting its own survey on the bailout plan; clearly, they have a vested interest in making sure the poll shows support for their position. So with the ASUA Senate; Sen. Baker has a vested interest in making sure his camera policy is enacted, and thus will in all likelihood have questions biased towards his opinion. The ASUA as a whole had a vested interest in getting the student fee increase.

Ideally, these polls would be conducted through the statistics department, as an instructor-supervised project that would teach students how to properly conduct a survey and provide statistical analysis,  while at the same time providing ASUA with far more reasonable polling results. Call it the Arizona Research Center for Campus, or something. For now, however, the student government is conducting its own polls through classroom technology; every poll result trotted out as showing support should be taken with a very large grain of salt.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Editor B

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3 Responses

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  1. […] Then, one of the few non-ASUAers (and non-media) asked: “Where is tuition going?” Bruce quickly got to the main point of the matter, which is that the percentage of funds marked for “student priorities” is being used on a variety of things that are being masked as such. Slugocki quickly jumped in, and harped on the fact that more accountability would be needed; to accomplish, he proposed forming a Task Force, which would take a SURVEY of the entire student body. Oh, joy. […]

  2. […] forgotten why rule-by-survey is so repugnant, I’ll quote at length from a previous post: 1. These surveys are conducted by professional pollsters with experts and money at their disposal. […]

  3. […] Erevnocracy 2.0. What, you actually thought that rule-by-survey was over? Former Notehall-er and current Academic Affairs Director Sam Ellis presented a new […]


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