Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Opinion polls gauge population’s electoral behaviour

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 03 February 2013

As we approach the General Election, many people, especially politicians, have been arguing for the banning of opinion polls ostensibly because they increase the risk of violence after the ballots are cast and the results are out. Their argument is that in the event that the election is won by candidates other than those predicted by opinion polls, violence would erupt on the assumption that rigging would have taken place.

In my view, such arguments are spurious and fail to take into consideration the science behind opinion polling, and the reasons it is done.

Scientists attempt to explain the phenomena we observe in our everyday life using a scientific method. As far as elections are concerned, we can only understand a population’s electoral behaviour by asking representative samples specific questions and then comparing them with the outcome of an actual election. Repeated observations of this nature will result in relatively accurate predictions of future electoral choices, information that would be of obvious benefit to anyone interested in influencing voter behaviour in their favour; in other words, the politicians.

The long and short of it is that opinion polls are in fact of more use to the politician than to the common citizen or the media. It, therefore, defeats reason for the greatest beneficiaries of the polls to call for their banning, especially after particularly unfavourable results for them. 

Unenviable position

If I were in their unenviable positions, I would use the results of an opinion poll to tailor my message to the voters, ensuring that my popularity rises exponentially by the next opinion poll.

The bashing of social scientists who organise opinion polls in this country is not isolated behaviour. Over time, Kenyans have developed the habit of denigrating professional work whenever the outcomes rub them the wrong way.

We will not listen to an economist who demonstrates that our presidential candidate’s economic blueprint is not worth the paper it is printed on. We will dismiss the opinion of a brilliant lawyer when she suggests that our candidate should be rotting in jail, not vying for political office.

The tragedy is that as a result of such cynical behaviour by the Kenyan populace, professionals are also gradually getting drawn into the conflict. This should not be surprising given that these professionals and their role models are also Kenyans whose attitudes are forged in the same crucible as those of the common citizen.

It is, therefore, not surprising to find a statistician who will rubbish an opinion poll, claiming that its methodology was flawed when, in actual fact, he only disagrees with its findings and their implications. Similarly, lawyers are notorious for talking out of both sides of the mouth on any issue, depending on who is footing the bill.

In my opinion, all these disagreements are healthy and must be encouraged because they help to strengthen the rigour of our systems. However, it is ridiculous to go as far as suggesting the banning of scientific endeavours on account of such arguments.

Only an unreconstructed Luddite would vigorously advocate the banning of opinion polls on the grounds that they foment division and conflict. On the contrary, it must be understood that opinion polls actually measure the risk of division and conflict, enabling the responsible authorities to act and eliminate the risks. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and a senior lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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