September 18, 2008

You're worried, but you're cheerful about it. Huh?

[By a disgruntled Merry]
image: chrkl

Yes, this is another post that questions research. Or, to be more accurate, it questions the way researchers question.

[Warning: this post contains dangerously high levels of statistics and percentages and such-like nasty math things. Proceed at your own risk.]

The Reuters/Zogby Index, which "measures the mood of the country," went up 4.4%. Apparently, "Americans remain worried about the U.S. economy and their personal finances, but their outlook brightened for the second consecutive month..."

So people are worried, but they're also feeling more cheerful about it. Huh?

It sounds like something Harry Potter would read in his tea leaves.

The pollster says the following statistics are cheering:

- The number of Americans who believe the country is on the right track rose to 25 percent from 23 percent
In other words, only 75% of the population thinks we're all doomed, not 78%.
- The number who are confident about their children's future climbed to 68 percent from 64 percent.
An increase of 4% in a poll of a thousand people is relevant?
- 45 percent of Americans said they plan to spend a little less or a lot less on gifts during the upcoming holiday season.
But Santa, I've been good this year!

How can that be cheerful?

The pollster, John Zogby, figured this meant "There are a lot of reasons to still have the jitters, but maybe people are learning to deal with them."

To me, this maketh not sense.

I realize that someone who appreciates sadistics um, I mean statistics more than I do (which isn't hard to imagine) might feel that this is a relevant number of people and that this whole telephone poll idea is a good thing. I understand polling a small number of people can produce accurate results if you take a sample that's representative of the populace.

What makes the poll so droll is twofold:
- This month's telephone poll surveyed 1,008 likely voters.
- They called people on their landline phones.

The number of people with landline phones is roughly equivalent with the number of people who remember when Farrah Fawcett was one of Charlie's Angels.

In other words, there's a section of the population who isn't being asked how they feel.

Yes, I'm exaggerating a bit about Ms. Fawcett

According to government statistics from 2007, it's actually closer to 13% of the population that doesn't have a landline.

To quote Scott Keeter, from the Pew Research Center, "If people who can only be reached by cell phone were just like those with landlines, their absence from surveys would not create a problem for polling. But cell-only adults are very different. The National Health Interview Survey found them to be much younger, more likely to be African American or Hispanic, less likely to be married, and less likely to be a homeowner than adults with landline telephones. These demographic characteristics are correlated with a wide range of social and political behaviors."

I concede that there would be a lot of complaints if people were called on their cell phones, thereby paying for someone to ask them questions. But it's unrealistic to assume that this doesn't skew the poll. It's like when a poll predicted Roosevelt would lose the 1936 election, when he won by a good margin. The responses were not representative of the whole voting population.

Yes, I'd love to see some positive news. Some could argue that it's positive to mention the fact that there are 40 more people out there who think their children have a good future. Me, I figure it's not unlikely that some of these people just had progeny since the last poll, and some of the others are feeling more cheerful because little Cyril is doing better at math and little Cindy has just broken up with her crack-using boyfriend. Given the land vs. cell issue, I think there might be too few people in the poll for an increase of that size to indicate a trend one way or another.

Studies we'd like to see

I'd love to see studies that went something like this:

[Reuters] A far-reaching Swiss study, covering 47 countries over 49 years, has conclusively proven that tiramasu causes humans to live longer and fit into skinny jeans easier than a steady diet of broccoli.

[API] A poll of 4,632 shopping mall employees discovered that 97% of them think their future will be greatly improved once they're able to vote.

[Cranky Fitness] Research conclusively proves that eating chocolate doubles your IQ and makes people sexier.

I mean, if the polls are going to be glib, they might as well be fun.


  1. Well, I think it's probably due to the fact that when the economy first started tanking, it was a shock you know?

    Now, the economy is still sinking but a lot of people have made it into life boats and they're feeling ok about things. That's how I'm taking it, anyway.

  2. The only way I can see that someone could possibly be happy right now is if they are of the mindset that their choice of political candidate really can make a difference, causing them to have a glimmer of hope, in which case their ignorance is causing their bliss. Until the people and government of this nation have a collective reality check and start living within our means and stop our whining, nothing will change.

    Excuse me while I get another cup of coffee. Argg.

  3. I agree, the perky poll results make no sense. And I share your skepticism about polls and how much you can generalize from a small sample of people.

    Yet with an election coming up and so much at stake, I find I'm checking them all the time. It can make or break my mood for the whole day depending on what they say. Thanks for the reminder about the cell phone issue, and how inaccurate they can be in general. I'll have to remember that on days when polling results aren't what I want them to be.

    I realize I've been itching to post an election-related rant for months now--perhaps I may have to break with Cranky Fitness tradition and post something blatantly political at some point before the election, perhaps when it's time to get out the vote.

    Dumb idea? Probably. But I may have to for my mental health even if it might alienate some readers. Stay tuned!

  4. I have very little to say right now except
    a) I remember Farah Fawcett on Charlie's Angels.
    b) polls will find any darned result you want it them to find.

  5. As the great philosopher Rob Zombie once said:" I feel so good, I feel so numb."



  7. Orange Halloween Oreos? I had no idea they existed!

    Do they taste orange? I can't tell if that sounds repulsive or wonderful!

    And yes, I'm sure studies show they make you sexy.

  8. I believe it was Mark Twain who said that there are 3 kinds of lies:
    Damned Lies

    Go ahead and post a political rant. I would enjoy reading it. Even if I don't agree with everything you have to say, it will give me more food for thought.


  9. Please post a political rant. I've wanted to do the same thing, mainly because I feel like Palin is a "trophy VP candidate"; she doesn't have much experience, but she's attractive.

  10. I used to get up while it was still dark to make my stick straight hair into faux-Farrah wings with electric rollers and so much hairspray I feel personally responsible for global warming.

    Me? Everytime I check I tremble with fear as the red part of the pie grows.

    Why are people so intent on voting for the same people who perpetuate their misery?

    I heard a man say just the other day, "Have you ever met a poor person who could give you a job?" in his defense of McCain.

    And just last night I blogged about some tennis ladies and their anti-Obama vitriol.

    Someone on NPR said, essentially, "It's time to start voting for people we want to have a beer with and start voting for people who are smarter than we are."

    Novel concept, no?

  11. Hmmm... I don't have a landline. Haven't for years. But I am old, married and a homeowner. What does this say about me?? Hear, hear to the Tiramisu study!

  12. Can I just tell you how giddy that Charlie's Angels video made me????!!! I had a Charlie's Angels lunch box when I was a kid and during recess I always had to play Kelly because I had long dark hair, but I thought I should play Jill, because my name is Jill and...wait, this WASN'T a post about Charlie's Angels???? Oh.Sorry.

    Chocolate makes you sexy?! I'm totally going to start spreading that rumour, pronto!!

  13. As a cell-only adult, I have to say that while it would be nice to be represented in these polls, that would mean that pollsters would start calling me on my cell...

  14. This Scott guy missed another factor: cell phone only people are much likelier to be in urban areas where there aren't huge gaps in coverage. (Not that rural residents couldn't use a boost in poll coverage. Minority much?)

    We need more chocolate studies!

    Mary Anne in Kentucky, relentlessly cheerful

  15. (And Crabby? Surely a political rant would be Cranky enough to be on topic here?)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  16. And, something else to consider - people who respond to telephone polls (not poles - people who talk to telephone poles are usually a little strange...I'm just sayin')....anyway, people sometimes LIE when they are interrupted during dinner to answer some stupid questions posed by some freakin' teenager, or someone for whom English is NOT their native tongue.

    (Did that sound a wee bit cranky? Good, the Bag Lady fits right in here at Cranky Fitness, then!)

    And Crabby? Would love to hear your political rant, and wouldn't alienate me at all, 'cause, ya know, I don't live down there in the US of A......

  17. Tricia, hear, hear! First time I saw her I thought she looked like a trophy wife next to McCain.

    Crabby, I would love to read your political rant, especially since I can't rant to anyone in real life (sigh).

  18. I'm for any study that makes eating tiramasu good for you. I already know its good for the soul, but proof would be nice.

    I think more than anything pepole are just looking forward to someone new in office, whoever that may be. Different is good.

  19. I'm with the others, Crabby. Would love to hear your political rant.

    Remember everyone, registration deadline is Oct 8 so if you haven't, do it now.

  20. I love how they tried to put a positive spin on things: "26% of people are happy! Now, go hide the 74% who aren't. Don't mention them!"

    Because, you know, I'm not smart enough to do the math and figure out what lies behind the perky delivery.

  21. Crabby? I prefer rants to math&statistics any time :)

  22. Personally, I think they forgot to ask one important question:

    How many of the respondants have begun taking mood-altering drugs?

    EVERYBODY I know is on anti-anxiety drugs now. Coincidence? I think not.

  23. I hate to break it to you Merry,(as a land-liner myself (don't even have a cell phone - gasp))) but even with a whole shwack of relevant data, you can tweak it to suggest what you'd like it to be...
    This sort of study is excatly that: not only are they not polling a representative sample of the population, they arern't representing the data in a statistically relevant way.

    I don't see how an increase in happy people by a few %, with the number still above 70% is a good thing. You can't put a positive spin on that if you try. People are just learning to deal with doesn't mean it's good.
    But I'm a geek stuck with stats often...and it infuriates me when people try and insinuate things from info they gathered jsut because they spent some time and money gathering it and don't want it to go to waste...

  24. Wow, I hadn't realized it had gotten as low as 25%! I'm not surprised, but I had thought it was more like 50%.

    I want to see a study on how playing flip cup after kickball burns more calories than the game itself!

  25. The landline phone owners who are polled are also home, drunk from losing all their money in the stock market. Drinking and landlines will always skew statistics.

    I doubt you will alienate me with your political rant. I'm willing to go thru the test of alienation for the sake of our country. haha

  26. "EVERYBODY I know is on anti-anxiety drugs now. Coincidence? I think not."

    I'm on anti-depressants, but as a cell-only adult, I was not contacted in order to happy-up their poll results. :p

  27. I want to be in the eating chocolate poll (and I don't want the placebo!) and I am very ready for a Crabby political rant.

    I think for those of us who are bloggers, but not political bloggers, sometimes there is just stuff you want to say that is not consistent with your regular message.I say go for it.


  28. [AP] A new study of one billion men and women found that nearly everyone has cellulite and it is, in fact, a sign of happiness, wealth, health and desirability.

  29. Hear hear!

    Polls are so silly. Be that as it may I love a good poll. Stats are fun to mess around with er I mean learn about in all their validity.


  30. Most people give up their landlines once they realize that they won't get polled and harangued by telestalkers on their cell phones. Don't encourage the PTB's to change laws to allow that crap on cell phones.

  31. i hate studies like that.

    How many bajillions of dollars did it take to figure this out?

    I would like some of my tax money back, please.

    Kelly Turner

  32. *Raises hand* Cell-phone only adult right here! Why pay for 2 phone lines when I hate talking on the phone - wish I could cut down to zero! Oh, but there's emergencies and I must call my Mom every now and then. :)

  33. I don't think they factor in all the people with caller ID who don't answer the phone if its not someone they know. I know me and most of my friends are like that. These polls are definitely not a realistic sample of how "the general population" feels. Any dummy can see that this country is in a financial crisis. Hello banks going under? Major corporations filing Ch 11. Airlines filing. And so the list goes on...

  34. your studies? so much better than actual studies.

    and worrying about the economy definitely was one of the triggers of a meltdown on our end last night.

    regarding the halloween oreos, brandon LOVES those and they supposedly taste just like a regular oreo, but somehow better. i think he's crazy. me? i just stick to candy corn.

  35. doom and gloom! Give me the chocolate survey ;)


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