“If 1000 monkeys typed for 100 years, one would pen Othello.”

Not 10 minutes ago, Your Working Girl received a phone call at home from one of Canada’s most well known polling companies.  You hear this company quoted frequently, making confident pronouncements on the vox populi.  The call was an automated survey on the issue of healthcare.  And it tantalizingly held out the possibility of winning $500 in a draw.  She pressed 1 to participate.  After her language of choice was determined, the first question from the disembodied voice at the other end was “Do you work in the area of advertising, communications or media?”

Your Working Girl does not lie.   And the truth of the matter is that no advertising agency or media outlet is paying for her time just now so she pressed 1 for no.  No alarm went off and the automated caller continued.  (Your Working Girl has people of her acquaintance who, without a pang, routinely say no to this question when it is patently very not true.)

“How important is healthcare to you at the federal level?” came the question. Press 1 for not important and 7 for very important.”

The follow up was similar.

“How important is healthcare to you at the provincial level? Press 1 for not important and 7 for very important.”

Now as her Gentle Readers know, Your Working Girl feels healthcare is mighty important, whether federal or provincial.

She strongly believes that the money being doled out to the medical-industrial complex is atrocious compared to the paltry pennies dedicated to prevention.  She believes that a national school lunch program should be mandatory given the research on how much healthier children are when they eat nutritious meals.  She knows that strong measures to end violence against women would dramatically improve the health of hundreds of thousands of women throughout the country.  So she pressed a hearty 6 on the importance scale for both questions.

But she’s not sure that’s the question they were asking.

Perhaps it was more related to wait times for hip replacement or more funding for hospitals or more money for cancer research or higher pay for doctors.  Or the belief that as a long as you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything.”

The point is who the heck knows what they were asking?

And how can any meaning be derived from the answers?

At the end of the call, the nice man with the disembodied voice asked Your Working Girl if she would like to “join a new community that is being constituted to gather information on media usage habits.”

“The community will help Canadian media companies who broadcast on the TV or radio,” the auto-man said, “and you will be entered into a draw to win $500.”

Wow.  Cool.  Two draws in one day.  Your Working Girl pressed 1 for yes.

“If 1000 monkeys typed for 100 years, one would pen Othello.”

This was former pollster, Allen Gregg’s, response to the news that a Forum Poll™ correctly predicted a Liberal majority in the May upset election in BC.

Such is the polling industry these days that it makes news when a poll accurately predicts elections.

And such is Allan Gregg’s frustration at the industry he helped to form in Canada.

The polling industry can be respected no more.  Pollsters were made monkeys of in the Quebec election (pollsters had Jean Charest’s Liberal losing their shirts – in reality it was very close).  In Alberta, Danielle Smith of the Wild Rose Party was going to be the next premier.  (Not even close.)  The debacle in BC had the NDP’s Adrian Dix ahead by eight points the day before the election. (The NDP was slaughtered.)

The pollster’s favoured response to those clunkers?

“They just pivoted. The voters pivoted.”

The fact is that the misleading antics of pollsters are having a terribly negative effect on the entire body politic by holding up a funhouse mirror.

Allen Gregg says “The dirty little secret of the polling business . . . is that our ability to yield results accurately from samples that reflect the total population has probably never been worse in the 30 to 35 years that the discipline has been active in Canada.”

Today’s polls are seriously skewed in a number of ways:

  • To older and rural Canadians who answer the phone
  • To people with landlines who (like Your Working Girl) are home at noon.
  • To an over reliance on people who respond to surveys; people not unlike (a-hem) Your Working Girl who is now part of a “new community” that will provide Canada’s media with their thoughts and perceptions. (And possibly win $500!)
  • Increasing automation eliminates interpretation

But perhaps the biggest skew are the pollster’s questions – like the one Your Working Girl was asked today.

Several people she’s talked polling with these days understand these new realities, but because of the industry’s prior respectability have faith that “they weight the responses to account for that.”

The fact is, as Mr Gregg says, when you’re wrong, you’re wrong.  And perhaps they might want to take a look at that.

Perhaps, when we’re thinking about polls, it might be helpful to remember that polling companies don’t make their money on political polling.  They make it from the hundreds of corporations who want to know the kind of paint we use, the coffee we drink and the cars we drive.

Political polling gives pollsters the profile they need market to their real clients, the clients with money. Go to the websites of any polling company Forum Research, Ekos Research, Angus Reid, Ipsos Inc or Nanos Research to check out who’s paying the freight.

Some firms conduct political polls to get in the news.  News of the sort that shows Rob Ford’s support holding fast, for example.   And to be honest, whether they are right or wrong, political polling is what gets these pollster boys on TV.   And YWG is afraid they are all boys.

Unless one of her Gentle Readers can provide her with the name of any female pollster besides Donna Dasko of Environics?

Dr. Dasko (as in she’s a PhD) is a respected public opinion analyst who aside from being Senior VP at Environics, co-founded Equal Voice, an organization dedicated to electing more women to all levels of government.

Your Working Girl wouldn’t mind hearing a bit more from her.

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  1. Nice one Gail!


  1. […] This could be good news for Torontonians who’ve been subjected to reports of Rob Ford’s supposed approval ratings, mostly based on robo-polling conducted by Forum Research.  See “If 1000 monkeys, typed for 100 years, one would pen Othello.” […]

  2. […] whiplash. Your Working Girl has previously written about the state of modern polling in this space. Click here for a refresher. Today Your Working Girl is saddened to have to report to you, Gentle Reader, the situation is […]

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