Hardly a day goes by without encountering information on a report, poll or survey. Whether it is about the health of our city or our own personal health care, it generally contains some data that makes us believe in one view over another.
Many of us are guilty of simply taking the information at face value. What we read, see or hear must be the truth. We believe the information we’re provided has already been evaluated. But has it?
It’s important that we stop for a moment and evaluate the information we receive. We can start by asking ourselves some questions on what we’ve heard. Does the report/poll/survey provide expert opinion from people who were not involved in the study? Who has paid for the study? Does the organization that has paid for the study have something to gain from the results?
Once we’re clear on who has paid for the study and why, the next area we need to look at is the information itself. Is the information provided from one side or both sides of the issue? Are the results provided in context?
In the case of a poll or survey, it’s important to look at who answered questions. Is the group that answered reflective of the population as a whole or just a particular group of people? The sample that takes the questions can make a big difference on the answers.
For instance, phone polls were previously considered a good method to elicit responses from a large number of random people. However, with many people opting to only have cellphones (numbers not listed in the phone book, and numbers polling companies are not permitted to call), are their views also being represented?
Lastly, how people ask questions can also impact the results. For example, when questions contain words that provide visual images to the person being surveyed, they tend to lead the participant to the answer they want to hear. For instance, the question: “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” would elicit a different response then, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” The more descriptive the words used in the question, the more vivid the image becomes in the mind of the participant, and the more extreme the answer provided.
This week, I challenge everyone reading this column to question something and run it through your own evaluation before simply believing everything you hear.
Christina Carew is a member of FUSION Halifax. Visit FUSIONHalifax.ca to find out how you can get involved to help make Halifax a better place to live, work and play.