In the first month of the New Year the debate on Scottish Independence has roared back to the top of the political agenda. For political geeks like me it has been a fascinating time as the likes of Alex Salmond, David Cameron and assorted others have traded blows over the timing of the referendum and how an independent Scotland would look should the vote come to pass. Media outlets have been quick to publish opinion polls on independence, while politicians have been just as sharp to jump on their results as evidence that their particular stance is gaining traction with the public. Yet many of these polls are based on dodgy methodology and as such are misleading to the public.
Last weekend the Express published a poll showing that for the first time over 50% of Scots supported independence, this was hot on the heels of a similar poll conducted by the New Statesmen which showed a 50/50 split between the pro-independence and the pro-union camp. On the face of it this looked like positive news for the pro-independence SNP, with numbers of support for independence seemingly rising since the beginning of 2012. Needless to say the SNP and their supporters were quick to express their delight at these findings over the weekend. However, as is often the case with opinion polls, the devil is in the detail. The Express poll sampled a meagre 180 people, to put that into context out of the four million registered voters in Scotland only 0.0045 percent took part in the poll. Such a tiny sample size makes it almost impossible to draw any reasonable conclusions and should be disregarded.
Similar issues have also plagued polls showing support for Scotland to remain part of the UK. Two weeks ago the Daily Mail ran an opinion poll which appeared to show only 23% of Scottish voters supporting independence. While the sample size was far more credible (1001 respondents) the question that was asked; ‘Should Scotland quit the UK?’ was incredibly leading. The word ‘quit’ has negative connotations; people quit their jobs, quit their University courses or quit their gym clubs. It therefore stands to reason that the results leant against independence. Had the Daily Mail used the Scottish Governments preferred question of ‘Do you agree that Scotland should become an independent country?’ it is likely that they would have seen a different result.
It is difficult to understand why the likes of the Express or the Daily Mail choose to carry out such lazy research. With the Scottish referendum likely to dominate the political agenda until 2014 it’s important that media outlets act responsibly while conducting opinion polls. Until then it is perhaps wise for politicians and the public to ignore opinions polls and concentrate on the debate in hand.