When did you stop beating your wife? Known as a loaded question, it implies that you were indeed beating your wife. If you say, "I haven't," this isn't good, because you have accepted the premise of the question (unless you actually beat your wife, in which case, you should get immediate help).
In polling situations, when you're looking at poll results, you should carefully evaluate the words of the question asked. Some questions have an obvious bias, and the answers may not accurately reflect the whole picture.
Leading questions are statements disguised as questions. They may make the poll participant feel that only one response is legitimate. For example, "You think it is important to value life, don't you?" That's a leading question, as opposed to an "open-ended question" like "What is your view on the value of life?"
You also can see that the question may depend on how the respondent interprets the words "value of life." If asked further, some may say they value quality of life (maybe so-called right to die advocates), while others may say life above all else (maybe so-called pro-life/anti-choice advocates). They could both answer the leading question in the same way (yes, it is important to value life), while their fundamental beliefs may be opposite from each other.
Another thing to look for, if you can, is the order of the questions. Sometimes pollsters will ask a so-called "horse race" questions first. For example, the first question might be a question about Iraq, like "do you agree that the US should withdraw from Iraq?" Then the follow up question might be, "what do you see as the biggest problem facing our country today?" The tendency might be to answer, "Iraq," since it's already on the poll participant's mind. So, if you see wildly diverging poll results, you might see if you can find out the order of the questions asked.
Also watch for double-negatives and questions that are too complex. A good example of a double-negative can be found in this law: "Unless prohibited by treaty, no person shall be discriminated against by the Department of Defense." This is a double negative. Confusing. Here's another good example: "Do you not want no additional tax increases?" If the answer is "yes, I do not want no additional tax increases," it really means, yes I want tax some increases, because I don't want no tax increases. If the answer is "no, I don't want no tax increases," it means I want some tax increases. Watch for double negatives.
Also watch for questions that are complex, "do you want the candidate to vote for subsidies of all non-governmental financial institutions for the next three years unless the financial institutions implement internal reporting structures to which all financial analysts should report before the institution of the plan to subsidize all qualifying non-governmental institutions until such time as Congress approves otherwise unless earlier determined by a statutorily authorized governmental body or the voters by referendum vote or other determination as left to the discretion of Congress or the voters?" You can see the potential problems with a poll question like this.
So, when you're evaluating the credibility of a poll result, look at the words of the question to determine whether it would be easy to confuse the issues by using biased language, leading questions, double negatives, or complex sentence structures. Some might say, K.I.S.S.
Interested in finding out about how racial bias might influence polling results? Stay tuned!
Photo Source: Hay Kranen, Widimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Image:Question_mark_3d.png (accessed Sept. 21, 2008)