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Saturday, May 4, 2013

Shock Polls, Armed Rebellion, and Nonattitudes

At The Atlantic, Philip Bump writes:
Fairleigh Dickinson's PublicMind Polls released a doozy of a survey on Wednesday afternoon. According to their research, Americans generally want new gun laws. Oh, and a quarter of us see a conspiracy in the Sandy Hook shootings and three-in-ten think armed rebellion is imminently necessary.
PublicMind buries those second two datapoints in the third paragraph of their press release (which was spotted by Talking Points Memo). You'd think that research indicating that some 89 million Americans think armed rebellion might be necessary "in the next few years" would make it into the headline (we did!) or at least one of the first few lines. But, nope. (A bit of optimism: The survey does have a 3.4 percent margin of error, so it could be as few as 79 million Americans who are reaching for their AR-15s.)
Bump noticed that many respondents neither agree nor disagree.
It also suggests a weirdness to the methodology — most polls have far, far fewer respondents who fall into that "other" category. (See, for example, the Washington Post poll we reported on Wednesday morning.)
The data on Sandy Hook — full question: "Some people are hiding the truth about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in order to advance a political agenda" — is similarly odd.
How do 37 percent of women neither agree nor disagree with that? How does that happen? It just doesn't make sense.

We're left with only one conclusion. The poll is at-best semi-scientific and should probably not be taken seriously. It certainly should not be written about by other media outlets. If you want to see the topline findings about gun laws, you're going to have to look somewhere else.
As other posts have shown, a good number of polls show substantial percentages of Americans saying that they believe odd things.   For instance, a third of respondents claim to believe in UFOs.  Do these data suggest widespread mental disorder?  Nope, it is more likely that people do really think much about the question and say"yes" just to finish the poll and get back to dinner.  Or maybe they are just having fun:  it is quite easy to believe that 20-30 percent of Americans are smart-alecks.

Ask a crazy question, get a crazy answer.