skeptic.jpgAmericans devour polls. We just love to know what everybody else is thinking. We give weight and credibility to poll results, especially when they are repeated by a trusted or established source. Turns out a little bit more skepticism might be in order: it appears that one polling firm, Strategic Visions, may have been making up some of their numbers.

It is common practice in the polling industry to distribute the results of “self-financed” polls as a method of attracting attention and publicity. Strategic Visions was “successful in part because its polling was prolific and was often among the earliest.” However, Strategic Visions sent out so many that it raised questions “about how such a small firm could conduct so many self-financed polls.” (“Polling Case Puts Glare on News Industry,” The New York Times, October 3, 2009)

As part of a professional standards compliance audit, industry monitoring group American Association for Public Opinion Research asked for certain minimal information (sample size, response rate, polling dates) from 21 polling companies. Strategic Visions was the only company that would not provide the information. Strategic Visions’ chief executive gave varying responses for failing to provide the information, including that he had not received the request in spite of two FedEx receipts produced to document delivery of the request. As a result, the American Association for Public Opinion Research issued a public reprimand, only the third such censure issued in 12 years.

CNN says it has “declined for years” to use Strategic Visions polls and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has “repeatedly requested supporting documentation for the poll results but never received any.” Others have not been as circumspect: Strategic Visions poll results have been widely used by news organizations as diverse as the Associated Press, MSNBC, The Washington Post, Fox News, and, to its chagrin, The New York Times.

When the public trust is at stake, when people rely upon you for unbiased facts, when verifiable truth is your stock in trade you would expect that “facts, and nothing but the facts” would be a core value. Strategic Visions’ view of facts as a malleable concept is made painfully clear by its response when asked if its claim that its base is Atlanta, Georgia, is misleading. Conceding that Strategic Visions is actually based in Blairsville, Georgia, 115 miles away from Atlanta, Strategic Visions’ founder dismissed the difference as “semantic.”

In your search for knowledge and truth, you will be served by a healthy dose of skepticism and a love of multiple sources, documentation, and verifiable footnotes.