Bad questions or sour grapes?

Today’s Irish Times poll created a small social media storm as some took delight in the apparent public shift in positions on the restrictions in Covid, and others, particularly supporters of the so-called ZeroCovid strategy, were appalled and immediately tried to poke holes in the survey. They argued that the questions were biased, and pointed to other surveys that showed public support in favour of their position.

People’s position on the quality of the survey seemed to allign remarkably with their position on ZeroCovid (full disclosure: I think it’s a coherent position, but one that wilfully ignores political realities of the island). Pointing to earlier surveys that show different opinions doesn’t rule out the possibility that people have shifted position, but because these Irish Times questions have not been used before, we cannot compare them to anything.

Survey questions should be easy to understand to an ordinary person who doesn’t follow an issue religiously- I usually ask myself, how would my mother read this question. They should mean the same thing to different sets of respondents – so we should avoid loaded phrases. A question that asked your opinion of ‘cancel culture’ might be interpreted differently by the woke and the unwoke. Instead it is better to specify particular actions. And they should not be worded in such a way to push people into a certain repsonse. Some questions are too ‘easy’ to answer, not requiring the respondent to think at all, or weigh up differing opinions – ‘Are you in favour of the peace agreement?’

The most controverial of the Irish Times questions is below.

In this case the wording seems to be pushing us to the first option. Who wouldn’t want to get ‘back to normal’? Especially after we have said we’ll look after the ‘elderly and vulnerable’? Do most people know what ZeroCovid is? They’ve been on the media a lot, but we might all interpret it differently, and most people probably couldn’t define it. The definition of ZeroCovid, proponents might argue, is about lifting restrictions permanently. If we are to lift restrictions politicians are aware that this entails certain risks, that trade off against the freedoms. Any question should take these into account. We could easily redesign the survey question to get more or less the opposite answer, for instance:

‘Are you in favour of lifting the current restrictions and putting people’s lives at risk, or do you want ZeroCovid which will make this lockdown that last one, and allow us get back to normal?

I assume people would object to that. A less biased question might be:

‘Are you in favour of starting to ease restrictions now, even if that might mean an increase in case numbers and potential hospitalisations, or would you prefer to continue with the current restrictions, to eliminate the virus, even if it is not clear when that might be acheived?

This doesn’t mean that the question is completely useless. For instance, even with the bias built in, it does tell us that there is a strong effect of age on your attitude to the current restrictions.

The other questions aren’t as problematic. But they’re not free from sin. The following question’s options includes clauses on health and the economy in two of the options probably should be left out. People can decide for themselves the reasons they have for the positions they hold. I might not care about the economy, but about individual liberty. That said, I suspect the question works in giving us a sense of the mood within the country.

I am reminded of this scene from Yes Prime Minister. It’s worht a watch.

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