How many phone calls do you receive each night from pollsters?
Yeah, me too. February can’t come soon enough.
But even though I say “no thank you” through clenched teeth and hang up every time that #$%@! phone interrupts dinner, that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the process that led to the call – the science, that is.
How do pollsters find us? How do they decide what to ask? How does the wording or order of questions affect responses? What do they do with the answers? How much of this is mathematics, how much is psychology, and how much is voodoo?
If those questions interest you, then you should show up at Science Cafe New Hampshire on Wednesday, at Killarney’s Irish Pub in Nashua. The topic of the free monthly discussion will be the science of polling.
Zachery Azem, a research associate at the UNH Survey Center, who has managed numerous statewide and nationwide polls, will be one of our two panelists there to answer your questions. Judging from our recent conversation, he’s pumped.
“This kind of conversation about polling, I wish would happen more often. People see polls in news all the time, but I don’t think it’s communicated well,” he said.
Which leads me to mention something that I, as moderator, get to control: Although we’re talking about political polls, we won’t discuss politics – because we never do. Science Cafe New Hampshire’s only rules are: “No politics, no PowerPoint.”
If you want to analyze the results of a particular poll, or discuss a particular candidate or party, this won’t be for you. If you are curious about margin-of-error calculations, random-digit dialing (surprisingly interesting – trust me), response rate variations and other details, then come on down.
And we won’t have to stick to political polling. Also on the panel will be Dennis Delay, economist at the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy, who has overseen political and economic polls for many years. You have probably seen or heard him quoted in news reports, most recently on an upbeat 2016 economy for the state.
As a side note, this is the first time in the 4½-year history of SCNH that we are repeating a topic. If the discussion we held four years ago is any guide, attendance will make you feel vastly more knowledgeable, even if not less annoyed.
One thing we can discuss, and will, is the way the cell phone revolution has changed polling as the number of people with phones that plug into the wall fades. It really is a revolution.
“The latest estimates show that 53 percent of New Hampshire residents are either wireless only or they use wireless mostly – 30 percent are only, 23 percent mostly,” Azem said.
Surprisingly, Azem said cell phone users are actually more likely to answer pollsters than landline users. I guess once you’ve gone through the hassle of pulling out the phone and seeing who has called, you might as well just talk to them.
Here’s another tidbit I learned from our chat: Automated dialers (“robocalls”) aren’t supposed to use random-number dialing, which means they shouldn’t be able to call cell phones. They can only dial numbers in directories.
Polls done by humans, on the other hand, can dial any number – which makes them much more expensive. Azem declined to discuss figures, but a decent poll with about 500 responses with a 5 percent response rate, meaning they have to dial close to 10,000 numbers, will cost in the low five digits.
I didn’t get to ask why some pollsters address me as “David” and some as “Mr. Brooks.” There’s probably some subtle psychological difference.
As always, Science Cafe is open to anybody who shows up. Session begins at 6 p.m. and will wind up by 8 p.m.; beer and pub food is available. For details, check the website (ScienceCafeNH.org)
And I promise you won’t get any calls afterward. Although maybe it wouldn’t hurt to try something like: “On a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is excellent and 5 is wonderful beyond belief, how would you rate the Science Cafe moderator?”
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, dbrooks@ cmonitor.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)