The Flawed Way People Read Polls


Here’s your illustration. Liberals loved Nate Silver because he calculated that Barack Obama would win the presidency, among other things. Conservatives didn’t like him so much. Now conservatives are pointing to the poor odds, though 60-40 is a ratio many politicians would covet.

I love Nate Silver not because of who he supports but because he shows his work, admits his mistakes, and has a pretty good track record. If I want to disagree with him, I can find the data in his own material. No, I don’t think he’s always right. The good thing is that he doesn’t think he’s always right.

People on both sides of the political spectrum try to make polls say what they want, or they cherry pick the poll that suits them. Newspapers tend to represent polls in whatever way will sell the most papers. It causes me to remember the book Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. There’s no better way to lie to people than to combine two factors: 1) Tell them what they want to hear and 2) Put some numbers in it.

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