Ethics Politics Scotland

The Stupidity of Opinion Poll Politics

I have just been listening to Gordon MacDonald of CARE (and a trustee of Solas) being interviewed on BBC Radio Scotland on the Assisted Suicide Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament. The interviewers key point seemed to be that an opinion poll which put support for assisted suicide at 79% of the Scottish public, was key evidence for the parliament making a decision. Gordon quite rightly pointed out that when the public were informed about the decision being made then the figures changed dramatically. The interviewer then suggested somewhat incredulously that this was Gordon despising the publics ability and judgement. To which my answer is simply that it is not the inability of the public to think that bothers me, but the inability of some journalists which really worries me. If the journalist had asked himself the simple question – who commissioned this poll then he would have found out that it was the supporters of euthanasia. But that is not how the BBC currently works – rational thought is replaced by emotion, and reasoned evidence by opinion polls.

This wonderful sketch from Yes Minister illustrates the point perfectly!

When Same Sex Marriage was introduced, opinion polls were initially against. They changed. Not because of the rational arguments and the considered thought, but rather because of the emotive stories, the political blackmailing (if you are ‘progressive’ and kind you will support this – if not you are some kind of twisted homophobe) and the twisted questions. If you asked people “Do you think marriage should remain between a man and a woman?”, the majority said yes. Likewise if you asked ‘Are you for same sex marriage?”. But once the question was changed to “Do you support equal marriage?” then of course the numbers shifted. Perhaps our incredulous BBC journalist would say ‘Do you really think the public are that dumb?” – to which the only answer can be – given that our politicians and journalists are that dumb, why should we expect the public to be any better?! Government by opinion poll in a culture dominated by an acquiescent media and dumbed down politics, is the dream of all dictators. Sadly we seem to be heading that direction….I hope that Scotland’s MSP’s will have the intelligence to see what is happening, and the guts to stand against the tide….

Footnote: Just to note that a couple of atheists on my twitter feed are trying to argue that governments do and should govern by opinion polls (it seems the ignorance of how British democracy works is deeper than I thought! – My quote of the year so far… “i guess you miss the point that the gov is elected by opinion poll. that’s how democracy works.” Unbelievable!


  1. Agree. I remember the one occasion in primary school politics when I objected out loud in class. We were about to have a “secret ballot” vote (teachers’ lesson plan was to teach about voting, majorities and minorities). One pupil puzzled by the question tried to ask another their opinion. Teacher said it’s not about what they think it’s about what you think. I promptly (for once) pointed out that the we WOULD vote on what we thought but he (other pupil) “knows a lot and is often right” so we wanted to hear what he thought first, then we’d decide what we thought. Teacher was definitely less than pleased. Vote went 57 votes to 2 in favour of the pupil’s comments. (Extra lesson on “landslides”?) A well informed electorate is actually MORE important than a secret ballot since, in important decisions, people WILL take the risk of making a public stand but CAN’T do that without information. How do I share the article above on facebook?

  2. I heard the interview too and was somewhat taken aback by the interviewers comment.

    Earlier in the same programme they had discussed the bill allowing “three parent” children that was to be debated later in Parliament. A Church of Scotland spokesperson was brought in to give the churches view, as apparently it’s only the churches that disagree with the bill. The CofS spokeperson was not that good, not a confident proponent for the opposition. However by the end of the discussion he had warmed up and was managing to make some good points. His closing sentences revealed two things – public opinion polls are very much against three parent children (over 70%) and some notable scientists have also written publically against it. That’s the only time I’ve heard that, up until then and again in the news this evening, it’s always just been the Christain churches that have been held up as being againt it!

  3. I rarely engage with religious folk but I believe that you at smart and your politeness is real an not forced-in short I’ve never met you but think your probably a god person, that why I’m dissapointed in your suggestion that folk in Scotland can have the wool pulled over there eyes by word you really think that Scottish citizens are so dim or is it that you can’t face the fact that in first world nations there is a increase year on year of a move away from silly bronze and iron age social rules.I say the people of Scotland are smart and liberally progressive to know what is right that is why these laws etc are passed and not because some poll stars change the way a question is formed.on a nicer note I just started a book on the creation of the king James bible called the power and the glory-well researched and written ,I know you like history so I recommend,

    1. Thanks Peter…..yes I do think that carefully worded ‘research’ questions do weight and load opinion polls. All the research shows so! Your prejudice about the bronze and iron age rules is showing – do you actually know what they were?! You say the people of Scotland are ‘progressive’, I say that one mans progression is anothers regression. Yes – I know that book it is excellent…glad you enjoy the blog!

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