Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics and (your choice of) Polls

April 26th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

Railing against the flawed methodology of polls published on the front page of The National Post is a little like pointing out that Leonardo DiCaprio’s interview with Bill Clinton wasn’t the proudest moment in journalistic history. True enough, sure, but must we really stare in gape-mouthed amazement at the obvious? And yet, last Thursday, my jaw went slack on me. "WTO protests fail to sway Canadians," read the banner headline in the Post. "Most support free trade talks, federal poll finds."

It wasn’t just that the Angus Reid poll in question proved no such thing. It wasn’t even that the research was conducted last December. It was that the day before the Post published that old poll, the same agency released the results of a brand new poll, and its very different findings went entirely unmentioned. This new Angus Reid poll, based on interviews conducted in February, showed that Canadians are split down the middle in their support for unregulated free trade and that "opposition to [the] World Trade Organization may be hardening."

In fact, the polling agency identified the anti-WTO campaign as a threat to the very future of deregulated markets, which might explain why trade cheerleaders are hell bent on discrediting the protesters. "The ongoing controversy about the role of the World Trade Organization," the poll reported, "may ultimately influence whether worldwide popular opinion embraces protectionist or free-trade policies."

In other words, a newspaper—cue gape-mouthed amazemen— actually dug up a fossilized old poll that could be spun to support its political ends, while failing utterly to report on a just-released, more extensive, global poll, which challenged its findings. I mean canyoubelieveit?

The Post quoted the mouldy old poll as showing that "roughly the same proportion felt more positive as felt more negative about trade talks as a result of the protest." Yet this finding is entirely discredited by the new, unreported, poll: It showed that 21 per cent of Canadians say the Seattle protests made them "more opposed to WTO," while only 10 per cent became "more in favour." That’s not "roughly the same proportion"—it’s more like 2-to-1.

The Post story claimed that the protesters represented "a tiny minority, little more than a fringe group with a tiny following." Yet according to the new poll, only 50 per cent of Canadians "favour free trade," while 45 per cent identify themselves as "protectionist."

The truth is that neither poll is sufficiently nuanced to paint an accurate picture of most people’s real views on trade. Respondents were given two categories—both cartoonishly broad—in which to park themselves: free trader (open markets = always good) and protectionist (slam door, boycott all trade meetings). Not surprisingly, when asked whether their government should "participate" in trade talks, 85 per cent said "yes," a statistic taken by the Post as a wholesale endorsement of status quo trade relationships.

But "participation" is a political straw man. "I would have answered ‘yes’ too," says Maude Barlow, head of the Council of Canadians and one of the world’s best-known free-trade opponents. "The real question is: What do you want your government saying at those trade talks?" For the answer, Ms. Barlow points to a 1998 poll, commissioned by the Council. It shows that Canadians’ top priorities for international trade negotiations were "protecting the environment," advancing "human rights in Canada and abroad" and "protecting the Canadian economy."

A new U.S. poll, commissioned by Business Week magazine and released last week, shows how different results can be when respondents are offered more sophisticated alternatives to "free trader" or "protectionist." When a third category is added—that of "fair trader"—a striking 51 per cent opt to describe themselves that way, as opposed to a mere 10 per cent who identify themselves as "free traders."

Enough with the polls. The real reason to turn our attention to the manipulation of polling figures is that it is part of a broader strategy on the part of trade cheerleaders to go on the offensive with their critics. "Who elected Maude Barlow," demanded an editorial in the Conrad Black-owned Ottawa Citizen last week. "It’s frightening to see unelected people trying to usurp democracy." It’s as if citizen participation in politics has become vaguely sinister, an intrusion into the exclusive jurisdiction of business leaders and politicians.

The irony is that the Council of Canadian draws its strength directly from public disillusionment with electoral democracy. The Council has more members than the NDP and Reform/Alliance and many of its members are exiles from the Liberal Party, convinced that Maude Barlow will do a better job of speaking for them than their MPs. The organization’s membership has increased from 23,000 to 100,000 since 1993, the year the Liberals took power and abandoned their opposition to NAFTA.

Okay, one more poll: In August, 1999, Vector Research, polling for the Canadian Labour Congress, asked Canadians whom they trusted most to "defend the interests of you and your community at the WTO." It found that 23 per cent chose business leaders, 9 per cent chose politicians and 11 per cent chose union leaders. The greatest number—37 per cent—chose "leaders of social groups like the Council of Canadians."

So who elected Conrad Black?

This article first appeared in the Globe and Mail.