Everyone gets them these days – phone calls in the early evening from someone either trying to sell something or doing an opinion poll. I like the idea of telling the caller that you're kind of busy right now but if they give you their home number, you'll call them back later. I gather not many of them give their own home number; I wonder why. Usually, the give-away that it's a sales call is the dead air on the line after I pick up the phone; before the automatic dialler realises someone has answered and diverts to the call to a real-life nuisance. Once, as I had some time on my hands and as I feel sorry for the poor sods on the other end of the line, I agreed to help out an opinion pollster. It was a waste of time. You have to answer “yes” or “no” or “agree” or “disagree” (and some the variations such as “more than somewhat” or “strongly”.) There was no room for explaining that my opinion was not so back and white. Inevitably, I agreed with one statement early on and then later in answer to an apparently similar statement, I disagreed. I felt I was coming over as a complete nut-case. The one thing I was sure of was that the poll did not come close to establishing what I really thought.
Anyone who remembers the excellent BBC television series Yes Minister may remember Sir Humphrey's demonstration of how useless opinion polls are. He asks Bernard a series of questions about re-introducing military conscription in Britain. Each answer prompts a certain train of thought and leads to the next answer. I don't remember it exactly but Sir Humphrey asks something along the lines of “Do you think the Government should help teach young men useful life skills”. Other questions follow in apparently logical succession and Bernard answers at the end that he is in favour of conscription. Sir Humphrey then runs through an alternative list of questions, including something along the lines of “Do you think teenage boys should be trained to kill” and this time the sequence leads to Bernard opposing conscription. Opinion pollsters aren't phoning because they really care what I think. Or what you think. Someone is paying the pollster and that someone is looking for a certain answer to back up some point they want made. As Humphrey demonstrated, it's not that hard to get the "right" answer.