Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Breaking Breakfast News: Popular Opinion is Popular

While idly drinking a cup of coffee this morning, I was watching a morning infotainment program on television. My purpose in watching the program was not to catch up on Hollywood gossip (naturally) but to catch the latest weather report. The program featured a phone-in poll on whether the morning newspaper should have published cartoons featuring Mahommed. The issue was characterised as "free speech" versus "sensitivity to other cultures" - and some concern about mayhem and violence.

The program gave two telephone numbers which viewers could call to register a "yes" or "no" to the question of whether the Courier-Mail should have published the cartoons. The "vote" was running strongly in favour of the "yes" option. The emerging trend in the phone-in poll was given some weight by the presenters. Giving undue weight to such "data" is an example of the Popular Opinion Fallacy. In this particular case, the data might or might not reflect actual popular opinion (phone-in polls are notoriously unreliable and are completely invalid as a sampling technique). As to the "correctness" of public opinion - all that can be said about popular opinion is that popular opinion is popular!