One more time: So many ways in which polls can be appalling as well as appealing

Is the Religion Guy the only American who’s already sick of the constant news reports on political polls, and yet can’t help following them because this  may be the most aberrant campaign since 1860?

Polls can be interesting but also problematic, as discussed in the  Sept. 8 Memo “Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists.” That item scanned complaints from Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of the leading U.S. sociologists of religion, in a new book:  “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” (Oxford University Press, published October 1).

Wuthnow asserts that polling in general is increasingly slippery, largely because response rates are so low that it’s impossible to know whether results are representative. He also thinks religion is an especially tricky field for opinion surveying and that media reports about results can distort public perceptions.

 Following up, the sort of material reporters can pursue is seen in an interview with Wuthnow by Andrew Aghapour, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for (This online magazine is well worth monitoring if you’re not familiar with it. Editor Diane Winston, Ph.D., associate professor at U.S.C.’s Annenberg School, was a well-regarded Godbeat toiler in Raleigh, Baltimore, and Dallas.)

Wuthnow cites Jimmy Carter’s presidential win in 1976, which media dubbed the “year of the evangelical.” Actually it was the year some media suddenly discovered evangelicalism.  

At the time, George Gallup Jr. asked a battery of questions on religious experience and concluded U.S. evangelicals might number 50 million, far above prior totals based on formal church memberships. Evangelical leaders themselves doubted the number. Gallup later revised this to less than 30 million based upon a 1978 survey for Christianity Today magazine. Subsequent political polling of huge samples by Pew Research has provided more solid estimates about this large and complex movement.

Wuthnow also notes that the media implied evangelicals were a voting bloc akin to Catholics who voted for Kennedy in 1960, also a distortion. The involvement of some vocal evangelicals with the “religious right” compounded the problem. Yet Wuthnow admits the perception of an evangelical surge, though exaggerated by questionable polling, was and is an actual phenomenon.

He also makes the interesting claim that for technical reasons the “polling industry” tends to better reflect trends among America’s white majority than African-Americans, who by most measures rank higher over-all in worship attendance and personal religiosity.

Journalists should take note of this sociologist’s advice: 

Be skeptical about overheated headlines because “polling usually doesn’t produce news” in the sense that “something really happened” but editors will devise “some way to make it seem like news.”

Polls provide  “ballpark” numbers that are not precise, especially on small trends. Pay little attention to ups and downs of a few percentage points.

Again, beware of thin response rates, often dipping as low as 8 percent, and consider the “margin of error” that can wipe out supposed statistical differences.

Remember that pollsters’ techniques can be judged and improved by actual election results when they deal with politics. However, “with religion questions they don’t have anything like that.”

Regarding religion questions, keep in mind that an individual respondent may give totally different answers a year later. 

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