The numbers game
OK, we’re going to harp about news coverage and share with you some insights from a recent national news story.
And you know what? (Here comes a brag.) We’ve got an angle on this thing we’re not seeing in more mainstream outlets.
CNN is reporting a recent poll under the headline: “51 percent say Senate should remove Trump from office.”
Granted, this is about a national politics story, and how you feel about Trump or impeachment, well honestly, we don’t care. We’re a local weekly, and besides, we’re making a point about something which will outlast the current firestorm.
Let’s talk the math of polling data.
The story has a link to the poll, carried out by a responsible polling organization. This only makes sense, CNN being a professional news organization – no leading-question Facebook poll thing, this is the serious stuff.
But here’s where it swerves: If you look at the fine print, and the fine print is not in the story, it’s in the polling firm’s report (linked from the CNN story, as is appropriate for a professional news org) it shows 51 percent with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 at a 95 percent confidence model.
And let’s be clear, every poll has a margin of error. It’s the basics of the mathematics used to draw a conclusion from a poll. But here, but those same basic rules, as ancient as math itself, is where it gets interesting: If it is 3.4 at 95 percent, then it is 6.8 at 98 percent. Again, that’s just the math of these things.
That means, if you get an A grade, it’s 3.4, if you want an A+ grade on your survey, it’s up or down by 6.8. (And the write-up by the polling agency is a little unclear – probably because we’d have to dust of our college textbooks to really make sense of this – but we don’t believe they mean percent margin o5 error.)
The point being, to speak to the greatest number of people possible, the margin means you’re off by just under 7 points above or below. Which means it could be more than half, way more, or less than half, way less.
Well heck, we could’ve had a few conversations at the coffee shop and told you that much, that maybe as many as half are for it, that maybe as many of half are again’ it.
Which means the poll, which is often the case when it’s a closely contested event such as the one being reported upon, doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot.
But you have to think, someone saw the numbers and wrote up the story. Boom, done, over. No mention of margin of error or sample size – the two things which really matter to a pollster (the questions themselves being of equal import).
We doubt you’ll see this angle on national news. The people who are paid to pontificate, to make these “What it all means/What it all doesn’t mean” arguments don’t test well for viewers when they get into mathematical theory. So instead we’ll have a lot of “those guys are [something]” which either support or disdain the politics of it. Which is to say they get between you and thinking for yourself, all through word play.
Adding we doubt the lack of in-the-weeds math was done maliciously. As you can see from what you just read this is awful dry stuff – thanks for sticking with it.
And we’ll be here. The sort of local newspaper which helps you be a more informed news consumer.
Galatians 6 (NIV)
Doing Good to All
6 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load. 6 Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.