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Data on the Run: Data and Statistical Sources for Reference and Instruction: Investigate Primary Sources

ACRL Preconference Workshop, April 10th, 2013

What is a Public Opinion Poll?

Source: Gallup

What is a public opinion poll?  A type of survey conducted by interviewing a random sample of people.  Good polls provide a non-biased measure of the public's views.  

Who uses public opinion polls?  Politicians, journalists, policy makers, businesses, and sociologists.  Also, historians, international relations scholars, American studies scholars, etc.

What's the Story?

   Survey conducted April 12-May 7, 2010.  SOURCE

Can Polls Be Trusted?

How to Vet a Polling Statistic

Use the same criteria as you would in evaluating any other information source, such as a website.  Specifically, examine authority, accuracy, objectivity, currency, and coverage.  Ask:

  • Who: sponsored or paid for the survey? conducted the interviews?
  • What: type of survey instrument was used?  is the size of the sample (number of people interviewed)? Is it representative of the wider population?  What is the response rate?
  • When: were the interviews conducted?  Were events occurring at the same time that may have influenced the responses?  Is more recent data available?
  • How: was the survey conducted (telephone, in-person, online)?  If by phone, were mobile phones included in the sample?  How were the questions worded?  Were they loaded or confusing?  How might the question order have affected the responses?   

Key: Critical readers should ask themselves if the number they are evaluating is reasonable or if there are other factors that might explain the finding.   When using any statistic, you should make clear to your audience what you are reporting.  Always cite the source of the data and note who is included in the sample.  Don’t make claims beyond what the data measure.

How are the Results Presented?


Scenario:  You're teaching a 1-shot information literacy workshop to a freshmen-level general education course.  Students will be writing position papers on current social issues such as gay marriage, legalization of marijuana, and immigration.  After covering all the faculty-requested content, you have 5 minutes left in your presentation to talk about polling statistics. 

Do: Using the Pew Research Center Topic search, pull up an essay on a current social issue to present to class as a type of resource they might include in their papers.  For the 5 minutes allocated, list 5 things would you point out to the students about polling and the graphic/poll you selected?