What Do Polls Actually Tell Us?


Do polls accurately represent the people that have been polled? I wonder. Going through this latest midterm election, I noticed many pundits, even journalists discussing the polls as to the numbers the Democrats might pick up in the House versus the same in the Senate with the Republicans. What is interesting is that, in almost every case, no one would cite a poll that they said was absolutely trustworthy.

Why? Is it the methodology of the poll, including the questions asked, or maybe the difference in polling between Republicans and Democrats (polling one side heavier than the other)? No, it wasn’t any of that. It was, and I heard this multiple times, that people won’t tell a pollster the truth as to how they are going to vote. Someone that identifies as a Democrat may actually vote for the other party on the ticket and vice-versa. Some will claim to not have made up their minds when they actually have. Interesting.

This had me thinking about the various polls about the numbers of atheists in our country, and for some, around the world. In the U.S. we are about 3.1% of the population, or a little over 10 million in strength. But how accurate is that if people when asked, say they’re not atheist when in fact they are? There’s still a stigma in this country, and possibly others as well, as identifying as an atheist. John’s recent piece started this thought train.

Even though polls don’t identify individuals outside their race/ethnicity, sex, age and one or two other points, there are still people that have trepidation in answering truthfully. Is it actually possible that the number of atheists in the U.S. is actually larger than polled? Of course.  How much larger is what I would ask and of course polls have a margin of error, plus or minus as we all know. So there, according to the poll be significantly less atheists or marginally higher numbers. But that’s not statistically relevant because those MOE’s are not based on “answering truthfully. Pollsters have no way to determine that to include it in any error rate.

What I getting at here, if you haven’t already noticed, is that there may be many more that self identify as atheists than we know. I’m not saying it’s 50% higher or anything like that, but it may be  higher than what is currently polled.  Just as voters don’t want to say who or what party they’re voting for, I think it’s very possible that “closeted” atheists are the same. It would be great if we lived in a society where people were not judged based on their belief or non-belief, but we have a long way to go before we mature to that state.

There’s not a perfect world and there never will be no matter what believers may think. There will always be prejudice and discrimination against some and atheists have a steep hill to climb, unfortunately. We’ll still climb, nothing will prevent us from eventually becoming accepted, at least by most. There will always be those that won’t, and that’s their problem, not ours.

I don’t know how we could design a better poll, but I often think there could be one where people were unafraid to say that they are in fact non-believers. No matter how it’s designed, the poll will be a difficult proposition based on societal norms.  We have an opportunity to try and change that perception during our lifetimes. We should take advantage of it where and when we are able. It’s a duty, not only to ourselves, but also our families to be able to stand up, unafraid, and declare atheism.



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