2357: Polls vs the Street
|Polls vs the Street|
Title text: Other pollsters complain about declining response rates, but our poll showed that 96% of respondents would be 'somewhat likely' or 'very likely' to agree to answer a series of questions for a survey.
This comic discusses getting data or opinions through a study (polls) or by getting them anecdotally (on the street). The phrase "voice on the street" is commonly used by news reporters who get opinions on issues by literally asking people walking by what they think, and has been previously mentioned (and derided) in 756: Public Opinion.
Many news organizations, and other data-driven institutions, conduct or commission polls to assess the opinions of the general public. These polls generally rely on asking a randomly selected and anonymous set of people a set of consistent, prepared and deliberately crafted questions about their opinions, experiences, and intents. The results of these polls are traditionally held to reflect the views of the public as a whole, within certain margins for error. Many news shows also conduct "man-on-the-street" interviews (more formally known as vox populi, "voice of the people"), to provide a human face of "the public" and engage viewers more. Many pollsters, pundits, and politicians worry that polling data may not accurately reflect the true trends in public opinion, as in the infamous "Dewey Defeats Truman" newspaper headline, and so White Hat is here extolling the virtues of interviewing "real people" to get at that ground truth.
White Hat suggests that, while polls suggest "candidate X" is more favored, the people on the street that White Hat interviews are more supportive of "candidate Y". He implies that his experiences reflect reality better than the polls. There are a number of reasons why polls may not be entirely representative. The sampling method might not be genuinely random, some groups might be less likely than others to respond to a poll, and it's argued that some people express views that they consider to be more socially acceptable, even in anonymous polls, but vote differently in actual elections (examples include the "Bradley effect" and the "shy Tory factor"). Despite these concerns, there is little evidence that individual conversations do a better job at determining public opinion than polling.
This comic is very likely a reference to the 2020 United States presidential election, which will occur on November 3, 2020 (about 2 months from the time of the comic's publication). Most polls show Democratic candidate Joe Biden polling ahead of incumbent Donald Trump, but Trump and his supporters frequently argue that the polls are inaccurate, often arguing that they personally knew or talked to many Trump supporters, and few Biden supporters. At the same time, the fact that Trump won the 2016 election astonished many (including Randall) who had seldom met Trump supporters in their own lives and within their own social circles. This kind of anecdotal evidence is generally a poor basis for gauging public support, for multiple reasons. Politics in the US are frequently regional, so sampling in a single area is unlikely to be representative of the whole country, or even a whole state. It's not uncommon for gathering places (both physical and virtual) to attract people from one political group more than another, producing a skewed sample. If someone uses their own perception, rather than rigorous analysis, confirmation bias is likely to have a major impact (a person might pay more attention to supporters of their preferred candidate, and ignore political opponents).
This strip lampoons such thinking, as it quickly becomes clear that White Hat's methodology is heavily driven by selection bias. He's apparently talking only to the residents of his town, and extrapolating those results to the whole country. By that logic, he would conclude that everyone has visited his town, and most people live there. It is true that he's getting "ground truth", but it's also true that he's only sampling a very small (and highly idiosyncratic) part of the whole population.
This is a joke about the phrase "on the street". Usually this phrase means "anywhere out in public where the interviewer can openly approach people", but White Hat is presumably taking the phrase literally and interviewing people he meets on the roadway. In the US, roads are generally reserved for vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles and in most areas bicycles), and walking or standing in the roadway for long periods is dangerous and usually illegal. The people who can be found on the roadway outside of designated pedestrian zones would generally be from the small fraction of the population who have no qualms about the risks of being struck by moving vehicles or causing accidents when drivers swerve to avoid them.
Although the comic begins by White Hat comparing traditional polls to the "people on the street," the following panels make it increasingly clear that White Hat is literally polling on a physical road and using those results to draw conclusions. In the second panel, White Hat contrasts poll support for candidate X against street support for candidate Y, which could be interpreted according to either the metaphorical or literal version of "on the street." In the third panel, White Hat's literal "on the street" poll reveals that, contrary to polls that surveyed geographically diverse people, everyone that White Hat meets on his street lives in White Hat's town. In the final panel, White Hat's poll of people literally "on the street" identifies only people who like to play in the street, again due to selection bias. White Hat's poll result contrasts with polls of the general population who find playing unpopular due to the dangerous nature of the activity.
- White Hat: Polls are just numbers.
- White Hat: You have to talk to people on the street.
- White Hat: Polls say most people support <Candidate X>.
- White Hat: But the people I talk to on the street support <Candidate Y>.
- White Hat: Polls claim most people don't live in my town and have never been here.
- White Hat: But the people I meet on the street tell a very different story.
- White Hat: According to polls, most people don't like playing in traffic.
- White Hat: So why do I never seem to meet these people on the street?
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