The Olympic Park Legacy Committee board will soon be making a final decision on exactly what should happen to the stadium after the 2012 London Olympics.  At the heart of the debate is the question of whether a football club should be allowed to take over the stadium and what provision will exist for athletics if they do.

As is so often the case, someone (in this case the BBC), decided that it would be a good idea to find out the opinions of the public.  The results have subsequently been reported in a way that would appear to anyone reading them as facts.  Unfortunately they are nothing of the sort.

The questionnaire was very short, but nevertheless made several critical mistakes that introduced bias to the results (none of which were presented alongside the results in the media).

Firstly, despite my best efforts, I have been unable to find out exactly what questions one and two were.  These are of particular importance, since each question can serve as a prime for subsequent ones.

Personally I see no value in opinion polls.  They are implicitly artificial in focusing an issue in a simplistic way.  Secondly, they are ENORMOUSLY sensitive to the broader context in which they are conducted.  This poll, conducted between 21st and 23rd January 2011, coincided with extensive media coverage about what we, as a country, had promised would happen after the games.  The reporting of this promise made the bid of West Ham United seem immediately more palatable than that from Tottenham.

However, despite what appeared to be an obvious solution for the stadium, namely letting West Ham have it, the Olympic Park Legacy Committee making a recommendation on the decision, felt they needed more time than originally intended: either it was a committee of monumental dimwits, or else this decision was more complex than was being portrayed in the media.

Perhaps part of their thinking was the thought that athletics is in decline as a spectator sport.  It’s hardly the case that stadiums up and down the country are routinely filled with tens of thousands of excited athletics fans: a large empty stadium may not be such a great asset for the sport.

The first question in the data supplied by the pollsters (Com Res) is Q3.  It makes the classic error of not allowing people the option of not having an opinion.  Granted, even with this option I still wouldn’t like the poll, but not including it has been shown to transform poll results (I recommend reading David W. Moore’s book “The Opinion Makers” if you want to learn more about this). 

Curiously, since this is a finding that was not reported in the articles I read, only 4% of respondents, that’s right FOUR PERCENT, said they wanted what is actually being proposed by the probable winner, West Ham – to use the stadium for a mixture of football, athletics and concerts.   So if we’re going to take note of opinion polls (not that we should) shouldn’t we take note of this finding?

So when, in Q5, people say they think that the West Ham bid should win, how is this contradiction with Q3 to be reconciled?  The answer, I suspect, is people don’t really know that much about the subject.  That’s fine.  That is, after all, why we appoint teams of people to consider and scrutinise such issues and make decisions.  What role such superficial, contextually-media-influenced opinion polling has to play in the process, I have no idea.

Disturbingly, statistics are beguiling things.  Numbers are, in themselves, concrete and tangible.  Statistics benefit from their representation as numbers, albeit proportions; but when they are derived from surveys, frequently have no such validity.  But now the media are representing this survey’s results as justification for the West Ham bid winning over Tottehnam’s; it is, they say, what people want.

So, at best, all we can say in light of this survey is that somewhere between 4% and 70% of people wanted the West Ham bid to win in the context of the media representation of the subject in and around January 21st.  Good.  That was BBC licence fee money well spent.

I don’t think the world is a better place for the media’s polarisation of complex debates.  In my view, opinion polls contribute considerably to this tendency and, as a result, do far more damage than they ever do good.

Philip Graves is the author of Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping

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