October 28, 2011
Wall Street Journal lies about #Occupy Wall Street

Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage has a nice piece up about a poll taken by Doug Schoen and discussed in the Wall Street Journal that purports to show the #Occupy movement is filled with radicals. Except, as Gelman points out, Schoen flatly misrepresented the findings of the poll. He didn’t misinterpret them. He lied. To wit:

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Everybody knows how you can lie with statistics by manipulating numbers, making inappropriate comparisons, misleading graphs, etc. But, as I like to remind students, the simplest way to lie with statistics is to just lie! You see this all the time, advocates who make up numbers or present numbers with such little justification that they might as well be made up (as in this purported survey of the “super-rich”).

Here I’m not talking about the innumeracy of a Samantha Power or a David Runciman, or Michael Barone-styleconfusion or Gregg Easterbrook-style cluelessness or even Tucker Carlson-style asininity. No, I’m talking about flat-out lying by a professional who has the numbers and deliberately chooses to misrepresent them.

The culprit is pollster Doug Schoen, and the catch was made by Jay Livingston. Schoen wrote the following based on a survey he took of Occupy Wall Street participants:

On Oct. 10 and 11, Arielle Alter Confino, a senior researcher at my polling firm, interviewed nearly 200 protesters in New York’s Zuccotti Park. Our findings probably represent the first systematic random sample of Occupy Wall Street opinion.

Our research shows clearly that the movement doesn’t represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse. Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence… .

Unfortunately for Schoen, he made the mistake of sharing his data with Azi Paybarah, who posted the raw numbers:

What would you like to see the Occupy Wall Street movement achieve? {Open Ended}

35% Influence the Democratic Party the way the Tea Party has influenced the GOP
4% Radical redistribution of wealth
5% Overhaul of tax system: replace income tax with flat tax
7% Direct Democracy
9% Engage & mobilize Progressives
9% Promote a national conversation
11% Break the two-party duopoly
4% Dissolution of our representative democracy/capitalist system
4% Single payer health care
4% Pull out of Afghanistan immediately
8% Not sure

Here’s Livingston catching a couple more errors by Schoen:

There are other ways to misinterpret survey results. Here is Schoen in the WSJ:

Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement—no matter the cost.

Here is the actual question:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Government has a moral responsibility to guarantee healthcare, college education, and a secure retirement for all.

“No matter the cost” is not in the question. As careful survey researchers know, even slight changes in wording can affect responses. And including or omitting “no matter the cost” is hardly a slight change.

As evidence for the extreme radicalism of the protestors, Schoen says,

By a large margin (77%-22%), they support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans,

Schoen doesn’t bother to mention that this isn’t much different from what you’d find outside Zucotti Park. Recent polls by Pew and Gallup find support for increased taxes on the wealthy ($250,000 or more) at 67%. (Given the small sample size of the Zucotti poll, 67% may be within the margin of error.) Gallup also finds the majorities of two-thirds or more think that banks, large corporations, and lobbyists have too much power.

I could be charitable and label these last two errors as accidental: perhaps Schoen is so out of it that he did not actually realize that most Americans support higher taxes on the rich, and perhaps he did not bother to read the wording of his own survey item on health care attitudes.

But the first mistake—labeling the group as supporting “radical redistribution of wealth” when his own surveyreported only 4% with that opinion—that’s just flat-out unethical. I can’t see how it could’ve happened by accident.

Spin is bad enough—I’d think that the job of a pollster is to get the numbers and then leave the misleading manipulations to others—but to me this seems worse than mere spin. It crosses the line into unprofessional behavior.

P.S. No, there’s no reason to be surprised to see unethical shady characters in politics. But I think it’s important for statisticians and political scientists to call out these people who abuse the trust that we have built up, based on decades of research on sampling and opinion polling.


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