are internet polls worthwhile?

Over the weekend the Dominion ran an internet poll, accompanying this article. It posed the question:  Should schools be allowed to teach ‘intelligent design? The two options given were a) yes, all theories should be taught, & b) no, it doesn’t belong in science class. (I might be a bit off in the wording, as the poll’s no longer on line, but that’s the general gist of it. By the time the poll closed the ‘yes’ vote was ahead by a margin of 2:1.

Speaking as a biologist & a teacher, that result both concerns and saddens me. For reasons that I’m happy to discuss – just post a comment to kick things off. But what I want to address here is the question – do such polls mean anything anyway?

Well, they certainly tell you something about the thoughts of that group of people who feel strongly enough about the topic to bother voting. Personally I find the comments pages even more revealing. But… they’re very susceptible to being warped by block voting (and if the Pharyngula community can do it, so can the ‘other’ side!) And, the website itself notes that

Stuff polls are not scientific and reflect the opinions of only those internet users who have chosen to participate

Besides which – science doesn’t work this way! It wouldn’t matter how many people voted ‘yes’; that wouldn’t change the fact that intelligent design is at best a pseudoscience that lacks the beauty and explanatory power of evolutionary theory. Science isn’t democratic about these things. I mean, in the US a recent poll suggested that >50% of Americans believed that the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. But that doesn’t make it so; the majority only rules if it has the evidence – good, hard data – and an explanatory model to back up its claims.

5 thoughts on “are internet polls worthwhile?”

  • Over on Pharyngula ( I see an interesting and important post from Matty Smith that I would like to draw people’s attention to. He writes:

    I’m sure to most readers here this incident is minor, but it has shaken my perception of NZ media to the core (and I was very cynical to start with). I have sent a letter to the editor of the Dominion Post, I doubt it will be published or get a reply:

    To whom it may concern

    Over the weekend, something very curious happened to your online poll about teaching so-called ‘Intelligent Design’ in schools. An outspoken biologist in the United States, PZ Myers, linked to the poll and implored science-minded folk to make the international scientific community’s professional opinion on ID known. This poll crash resulted in votes from both sides reaching five digits, it was quite monumental for a supposedly insignicant internet poll. One can only assume that international fundamentalists were also crashing the poll, given that ‘Yes – both theories should be taught’ had so many votes as well. Strangely enough, the number of voters in the poll has dropped substantially today, back to four digits, and is now weighted heavily in favour of teaching ID in New Zealand schools (as if science teachers had enough time in their day to teach good science well, let alone debunk junk science). This raises the question: Are staff rigging these polls, or is there an innocent explanation?

  • I also noted some issues with the poll results page–out-of-date results can be presented. On clicking for results, it’d show old results; reloading the results window would bring up the current results. (I suspect this might be due to not setting http setting to indicate that the page should expire immediately, but I didn’t bother check. Some blog pages also suffer this fate for what its worth!) If its “just this, that’s lousy programming.
    If they are rigged, that’s way out of line.
    Mind you, since they are prone to “bombing”, the results are meaningless anyway. A statistician might mutter to the effect that the participants aren’t sampled, but are self-selecting, which leads to obvious issues, mutter, mutter… 🙂
    It’d be a little more interesting if they’d post the “scores” against time (or cummulative number of votes): it’d show up if the scores are swinging wildly, etc., towards trending to a consensus.

  • It’s interesting that this poll was ‘crashed’ by both sides. We know about Pharyngula’s post (he is usually extremely successful in crashing polls). I would like to know who was behind the creationists mobilisation on this issue. This might be useful information in identifying the groups involved in promoting ID here.
    However, that result shouldn’t concern us as the UMR Research Survey: Morality, Religion and Evolution was pretty scientific and showed 70% support for evolution in New Zealand. It also showed that more than 40% of Christians do oppose evolutionary science (New Zealand supports evolution) – this does suggest where the problem is and where the education work should concentrate.

  • Odd what you stumbled upon unexpectedly, and months after the fact. Just popping in to note that I did get a response from the staff in the end. and the Dominion Post, whose sites look almost exactly the same, both posted up the same poll. People linked of both through Pharyngula, so everyone was crashing a different poll according to which link they clicked. That accounts for the shifting tallies. The poll results were very depressing all the same, but you must keep in mind that and attract a largely reactionary, conservative readership.
    Matty Smith.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Thanks, Matty. I had other people tell me the same thing. The results were a tad depressing – but I found the virulence of some of the comments even worse…

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