polling

The statement, "Statistics isn't science," is about as banal as, "The sky is blue," or, "Puppies are cute." Anyone remotely familiar with the scientific method understands that, just like a ruler or a telescope, statistics is a tool. Scientists use the tool primarily for one purpose: To answer the question, "Is my data meaningful?" Properly used, statistics is one of the most powerful tools in a scientists' tool belt. 

But improperly used, statistics can be highly misleading. If an astronomer only points his telescope at the sun, he won't be able to see the Milky Way behind it. Worse, he will arrive at a very twisted understanding of the universe; he will conclude that everything beyond Earth is orange and fiery. Similarly, if a statistician plugs the wrong numbers into an...

Every four years, Americans become obsessed with The Polls. What do the polls say? Have the polls shifted? Which presidential candidate is up, and which is down? Entire careers have been built (and destroyed) by analyzing The Sacred Polls.

Savvy politicos know that not just any poll will do. Online polls, in which anybody can vote, are not legitimate. The reason is because they do not accurately reflect the voting public. Imagine, for instance, a poll on Starbucks' website asking readers if they like to drink coffee every day. In this hypothetical poll, it would not be a surprise if nearly 100% of respondents said "yes," even though only 64% of Americans drink coffee...

Imagine you receive a phone call from a pollster. When you answer, the person on the other end asks, "For whom do you plan to vote in November: The honest and trustworthy Mr. Smith, or his lying, cheating, and disgusting opponent Mr. Jones?" Quite obviously, the pollster is trying to elicit a particular response.

This is a technique called "push polling," and it's actually far more of an advertising campaign than an attempt to discern the will of the voters. Nobody would take the results of such a poll seriously.

Gallup, a well-respected pollster, recently released the results of a poll on race relations that also asked African-Americans a loaded question: Can you think...