Tue, Sep 28, 2010 - Page 8 News List

EDITORIAL : Shameless opinion poll shenanigans

It’s no secret that politicians often use opinion polls to support, rather than determine, policy decisions. Knowing this, the public is well advised to always approach such polls released by government agencies with skepticism, as numbers can be massaged to fit predetermined policy, just as intelligence can be used to buttress just about any plan, however frivolous.

One need only turn to an opinion poll on cross-strait relations released on Thursday by the Mainland Affairs Council for a perfect example of a politicized survey masking self-serving purposes.

The third question in the poll — “Stance on status quo, reunification, independence” — seems innocuous enough, until one looks at the answer categories: “Maintaining the status quo in the broadest sense” (86.2 percent), “Maintain the status quo forever” (30.5 percent) and “Maintain the status quo, and then reunify [sic] with the mainland or seek independence” (34.6 percent).

While on the surface there’s nothing wrong here, a hypothetical scenario can enlighten the situation.

Imagine a group of 20 judges is asked to decide whether a man caught stealing a goat should be (a) stoned to death for his crime; (b) allowed to walk free; (c) that further deliberation on the matter is necessary, though the end decision must be death or freedom; or (d) that deliberation should go on indefinitely. Unbeknownst to most but his closest aides, the village chief has already made up his mind and wants execution, no matter what. However, as he rules over a democracy, he orders an opinion poll to give the decision some veneer of legitimacy.

In the final results, the first two options — kill now or release now — are not mentioned, while the last options — more deliberation then kill, and more deliberation and release — are conflated; in other words, the answer category reads “More deliberation, and then kill or release.”

One could ask why the organizers didn’t provide the numbers for the first two types of answers. Perhaps this is because only 1 respondent, or 5 percent of the total, provided the answer that was sought by the village chief — that is, kill immediately — while three, or 15 percent, said they wanted the man freed immediately. As for the judges who wanted more deliberation before making a decision, let’s say that one wanted more deliberation then kill, while three wanted more deliberation, followed by release. The remaining 12, meanwhile, sought deliberation with no verdict, meaning that overall, only two of 20 are in favor of execution.

The problem should be salient by now. First of all, while three times as many judges want the suspect released rather than killed, the survey does not tell us. What it also fails to show is that while most people favor more deliberation — or deliberation ad infinitum — again, three times as many judges favor ultimately releasing the suspect versus executing him. By conflating the two, however, there is no way of knowing this.

The same problems plague the council’s poll, as it fails to show that those who support the “status quo,” followed by a move toward Taiwanese independence, outweigh those who support the “status quo” followed by unification. Not only this, but in the past decade, support for immediate Taiwanese independence (not reflected in the poll) has grown, now reaching 16 percent, while support for immediate unification has dropped steadily, now at about 5 percent (also not reflected in the poll).

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