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Mind Games And The 2010 Elections

February 23, 2010

It is human nature: to trust what we hear, what we read, and most certainly what we see.
So it is, perhaps that opinion surveys have that  currency, that presumed efficacy, so much so that well ahead of the May 10 elections, the surveys firms such as Pulse Asia, Social Weather Station, and just last week, the firm that does survey ratings for television shows, TNS (Taylor Nelson Sofres), was widely reported to have entered the game of telling us who’s ahead in the presidential derby.

As one news report said:

Senator Noynoy Aquino again leads the presidential race in the latest survey conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS).
The survey was conducted January 28-February 3 with 3,000 respondents.
Aquino got 41.54 percent topping all presidentiables.
Second spot went to Manny Villar with 30.63 percent while Erap Estrada and Gibo Teodoro placed third and fourth with 11.66 percent and 5 percent respectively.

The report drew these reactions immediately:

Former President Joseph Estrada and Sen. Manny Villar on downplayed the results of the latest presidential survey of Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) which had Sen. Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III regaining the lead over his closest rival.
The Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP) presidential bet, who went around Quezon province, said commissioned polls are often biased for those who paid for the surveys.
“Kapag ang nagpa-survey LP, mataas si Noynoy. Kapag nagpa-survey NP (Nacionalista Party), malakas si [Sen. Manny] Villar. Kami wala kaming pampayad sa survey kaya mahina kami (If the survey is commissioned by the LP, Noynoy is leading. If it’s commissioned by the NP, Villar is strong. Those who have no money to pay for surveys are usually lagging behind),” Estrada said.
Last year, Estrada said he would rely on survey results before choosing whether to run or who to support.
However, the former president, whose 6-year term was cut short in 2001 by a military-backed urban uprising, clarified that he also believes in surveys.
“Malayo pa, hindi pa masyadong credible iyan because marami pa ang  undecided. They (voters) can always change their minds,” Estrada said.
Villar, for his part, said he is not actually familiar with Taylor Nelson Sofres, the firm that conducted the survey. He believes that he is still gaining on Aquino due to the warm public reception in his campaign sorties.
Despite his unfamiliarity with the firm that conducted the survey, the Nacionalista Party (NP) standard-bearer said he would still respect the survey’s results.
“Hindi ko alam kung ano ang TNS, ngayon ko lang narinig yan, pero ok lang sa akin. May mga surveys na ako ang lamang, meron naman si Noynoy. Ginagalang ko naman lahat yan. Ang ginagawa ko ina-average ko sila. So, siguro ok naman din yan. Di ko lang alam kung ano yan pero ok din naman siguro yan,” he said.

What’s playing out before our very eyes?
It has become all too obvious that the surveys have become nothing less than mind conditioning tools.

This much was opined by former Senator Francisco Tatad in last week’s Cafe Fernandina Forum:

Candidates, would-be candidates and political parties have taken these survey results at face value as scientific, accurate and totally above-board. The mass media have passed them on freely without any critical analysis, and not a small portion of  the public appears willing to accept them as gospel truth.  Public discussion of   the merits of the candidates and their respective political platforms, if any, has thus been thrust aside in favor of this undivided attention to the surveys.

This gives the polling firms an excessive and unaccountable power they have not earned. There is no guarantee that this power will not be used to tax the public interest; there is, in fact, some doubt that the common good ever figured in the recent surveys. Based on the existing trade literature, not only is the methodology of the surveys fatally flawed, the pollsters have also failed to rise to the high professional and ethical standards of opinion polling in the more advanced countries, notably the United States. Thus, while claiming to serve the public interest, the  surveys  may have, in fact, only served some special political and commercial interests.

Having said these, the former senator went on to reveal the problems with how the surveys are done, to wit:

I put on exhibit first the practice of using face-to-face interviewing in the surveys. This is the standard method used by local pollsters for eliciting responses from survey participants. They say so in their own reports.

In this survey method, respondents are tracked door-to-door and interviewed by the pollsters’ personnel in the field. They are asked to respond to the pre-set questionnaire and shown pictures of candidates as appropriate.

In the past, face-to-face interviewing was viewed by US opinion research experts as an appropriate method for conducting opinion surveys. It ostensibly allowed them to select the “right” respondent to be interviewed. After major failures, however – notably, the erroneous forecast of Thomas Dewey’s victory over Harry Truman in the 1948 US presidential elections– this survey method was abandoned, so much so that reputable pollsters in the US have now discarded it altogether.

Why was this? We invite some experts to tell us why. Chava Frankfort-Nachnias and David Nachmias in Research Methods in the Social Sciences write: “The very flexibility that is the interviewer’s chief advantage leaves room for the interviewer’s personal influence and bias.”

The pollster Kenneth Warren in his book, In Defense of Public Opinion Polling, says: “The cons of door-to-door interviews far outweigh the pros…Because of the sensitivity or personal nature of some questions, interviewers, because they were placed in face-to-face situations, have admitted that they sometimes guessed or fudged responses…These problems are a major source of bias in personal interviews, causing significant contamination of the poll data.”

These methodological and practical problems, according to Warren,  doomed face-to-face interviews forever. By 1980, nobody in the US wanted to pay for this type of  “fatally flawed and grossly inaccurate” surveys.

This, however, seems to have had no persuasive effect on our local pollsters.
A second glaring weakness is the extensive and general use of quota sampling to create “a representative sample” of the Philippine population.  In quota sampling, survey respondents are picked from different types of people (e.g. by age, sex, religion, income) and various predetermined areas (e.g. region of country, as well as urban or rural).

This method is the most familiar form of non-probability sampling. It is supposed to mirror the same proportions in the targeted survey populations, but doesn’t. And it proved to be an earth-shaking failure in 1948 after three leading US pollsters–Gallup, Roper and Crossley—erroneously called the US presidential election in favor of Dewey instead of Truman.  In the United Kingdom, where it persisted, it was blamed for the failure of the pollsters to predict Prime Minister John Majors’ victory in 1992.

“Quota sampling could never work in practice,” says Professor Warren. “Not only could pollsters not know the exact demographics so they could pick a representative sample that actually reflected the proper demographical proportions, but it was naïve to think that the interviewer could manage to interview the precise people needed to fill each quota.”

Thus today, reputable US pollsters rely almost exclusively on probability random sampling to create a “representative sample,” says Warren.

Why then do local pollsters continue to  use quota sampling and face-to-face interviewing for their surveys? Why haven’t they adopted probability random sampling, which has protected US opinion polls from using contaminated data?

Of course, the same methodology is also still used in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America.  But that is no excuse, given the high claim our local pollsters make for the supposedly advanced state of knowledge in their trade.

The situation would not have been so bad were the surveys meant simply and solely for the private consumption of clients. But as opinion polls have become a hot commodity and the stakes and rewards have gone up, pollsters have been led to make bigger and bigger claims for their products and thrown standards out the window.

Professional standards are virtually non-existent in the local opinion polling industry. No law regulating the conduct of opinion polling, and no professional association of pollsters either to set and enforce standards of conduct and standards of disclosure and ensure “the reliability and validity of survey results.”

There is a professional association of market research firms–MORI (Market Opinion Research Inc), but market research is markedly different from public opinion research. Consequently, opinion polling firms can pretty much do what they please. They set their own standards and parameters for the conduct of their polls. And they release findings virtually at will.

Tatad further asked:

1.    Who sponsored the survey, and who conducted it?
2.    What is the sampling method used?
3.    What is the population that was sampled?
4.    What is the size and description of the population that serves as the primary basis of the survey report?
5.    The exact wording of questions asked, the order in which they were asked, the text of any instruction or explanation to the interviewer or respondent that might reasonably affect the response.
6.    A discussion of the precision of the findings, including estimates of sampling error and a description of any weighting or estimating procedures used.
7.    Which results are based on parts of the sample rather than the total sample, and the size of such parts.
8.    The method, location and dates of data collection.

If we had such counterparts to these private associations, we would not be seeing the extravagant claims for opinion surveys and the excesses by pollsters that we see today. We would have polling firms that are a lot more modest about their work, and a lot more careful about their pronouncements regarding the opinions and sentiments of our 94 million people.

And we would not be searching in vain on their websites for their survey samples and how they were created, the names of politicians they had invited to participate in the survey at P100,00 for every “rider question” about themselves, who accepted the invitation, and what “rider” questions were thrown in.

Tatad also castigated the news media’s “unwitting part in allowing opinion poll results to dominate  public perceptions of the campaign. This would not have been possible if dubious opinion polls had not been reported so energetically in the media without an iota of analysis. The public would have had a better appreciation and understanding of public opinion polling had the media been a little more critical and vigilant.”

He also cited the elements missing in the conduct of local polling:

•    Adherence to Professional Standards and Ethics
•    A Well-developed, Intelligent, Yet Doable Research Design
•    A Carefully Drawn and Used Representative Sample
•    A Well-designed Questionnaire
•    Well-trained and Professional Interviewers
•    Careful Coding and Tabulation of Raw Poll Data
•    Thorough and Insightful Analysis

The red flags the former senator are certainly informative as they are troubling, to this writer’s mind.

I do not know if there is material time for the remedies he proposes to be acted upon, and if the sectors concerned will pay heed.

But the mind games at work with these surveys can quite thoroughly undermine elections in the same way that dagdag bawas does.

Further readings here:

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