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"Pollsters' Dirty Little Secrets"

by John Leo, from the U.S. News & World Report

This is a meditation on opinion polls, and how some polls are more honest and more valuable than others.

A week ago, as I sat down for a panel discussion on the "Sensation" exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, someone handed me a fresh poll commissioned by our host, the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. The pollsters said it showed that the public was overwhelmingly on the side of the museum -- 85 percent believed Americans have the right to judge controversial exhibits for themselves, and 59 percent said government should not be able to ban such exhibits at museums receiving public funds.

Later, after I took a long look at the survey, the results seemed much more ambiguous. Early questions showed that majorities, ranging from 54 percent to 64 percent, disagreed with the statement that "people should be allowed to display in a public place art that has content that might be offensive" to minorities, women, religious groups, or simply "to others." the context of the dispute, it either meant that a lot of people were backing Mayor Giuliani or at least had mixed feelings about deeply offensive art.

This aversion to offensive art, however, was cut short by a number of changes in the language of later questions. The phrase "people should be allowed to display" was replaced with "government should be able to ban art in public museums" (67 percent said no). No surprise there. Faith in government is low, so questions about "government" controlling anything at all are likely to draw heavy negatives, particularly when the word "ban" is nearby. These negatives might have been avoided by simply dropping the G-word: "Should museums be allowed to display" the art.

Like a lawyer leading a witness, the poll asked whether government has the right to ban books from public libraries and plays from public auditoriums. While interviewees were wallowing in outrage over the idea of our arrogant government even thinking of such stupidity, the pollsters decided to spring the first question about public funding: "Government should be able to cut funding" to museums staging offensive exhibits (61 percent said no, actually a low figure given the set-up questions).

Another verbal maneuver: Pollsters know that questions beginning with weak words like "regardless" and "whatever" cue people to ignore the clause that follows and agree with the emphatic main part of the statement, which comes last. So it's no surprise that 73 percent agreed that "Regardless of how I feel about the art exhibit itself, banning art in public places is something that violates Americans' right of free expression."

Remember, a majority had already said that people shouldn't be allowed to display offensive art in a public place. Here the "regardless" sentence structure and the strong language of "ban," "right" and "violate" both work to get a different result.

The spin put on the survey by the pollster, the Center for Survey Research at the University of Connecticut, did not reflect the public's conflict and confusion over the issue........

Regardless of one's opinion on the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition (whatever), this sort of thing is almost enough to make us call for a national center to monitor polling excesses. Pollsters, however, do monitor one another now and then..........

One problem with polls is that all questions and answers are usually distilled down to what the pollster says they all mean. This is distilled down even further to a press release that will pretty much determine how reporters treat the story............

"There are all sorts of dirty little secrets in polling," says Robert Lichter of the Statistical Assessment Service. "Readers have to be their own editors. Don't look at the interpretation. Look at what people actually said."