Margins of error


The shock of this week’s Presidential election in the United States has overshadowed other winners and losers on election night. Big Marijuana was a winner. Four states have legalised recreational marijuana and another four medical marijuana. Assisted suicide was a winner, with voters in Colorado passing a ballot initiative legalising it.

A big loser was the polling industry, which failed to predict Trump’s astonishing victory. This comes after other surprises (ie, failures) in the Brexit debate and the peace accord in Colombia.

And this has made pollsters’ clients suspicious. “A corporate market research project, you don’t know if your polling is shit because there’s no election day,” Dan Wagner, head of Democratic research firm Civis Analytics, told the Wall Street Journal. In politics, “there’s a day where you’re going to find out whether you were right or whether you’re an idiot.”

Since polling has become a weapon in bioethics policy debates on issues like euthanasia, abortion, or stem cell research, perhaps we can feel a bit more justified in our scepticism about polls which purport to show what the public thinks. It would be silly to say that polling is broken, but it certainly needs a good grease-and-oil change.   




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