It’s tough out there for a news consumer. If you consume any political news, you’re going to be inundated with news about polls — who’s up, who’s down, who’s going to win, and who’s going to lose.
But how do you know what can you trust?
To find out, Anne-France Goldwater and Samantha Goldwater-Adler invited Philippe J. Fournier to the podcast. When he’s not working as a physics professor at Cégep de Saint-Laurent in Montreal, he runs Quebec125.com where he aggregates political polls in Quebec and across the country for the Quebec magazine, L’Actualité.
Fournier looks at the results of political polls, puts them together and then runs them through a mathematical model he’s devised to weed out the noise to try and find a clearer picture of where the political parties stand in the public.
With his help, Anne-France and Samantha try and tease out some important ways the average news consumer can read a story about the political horserace and come away without being misinformed. What’s important is to not put too much faith in a single poll.
“What makes a bad poll? Maybe let’s say you look at the history of a polling firm, if they’re always wrong at some point you have to stop using that data,” Fournier said. “When I build my model, to test it I use previous data,” he said. Using data from several previous elections, Fournier put together a model that uses historical polling trends to better under the polling trends of today. By using the past to help better understand the present, he’s been able to turn the latest news story into something more nuanced.
As Samantha summed up, “polling and collecting data can give us a snapshot, or a reasonable predictor of where things are going politically and that there’s certain limitations to watch out for.”
“What you should do,” she said, “is to look at an aggregator like Fournier who brings together a lot of sources at once to give a broader and more nuanced picture of what’s going on.”
• Anne-France Goldwater: Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by John Allen Paulos — The book is a guide to understanding math and numbers when they’re out in the world. “It’s organized in very easy-to-read chapters that teach you to think more critically anytime you hear percentages, or numbers, or you see a graph in the newspaper,” Anne-France said. “Statistics are hugely important. They’re our foundation of our understanding of the world around us, but unless you understand what the numbers mean and how they’re being presented to you, they can be used to manipulate your thinking.” And this book will give you a better understanding of how to avoid that trap, Anne-France said.