Problematic polls and collective worship

I’ve been having an interesting Twitter conversation over the last 24 hours with a secularist about a Humanists UK poll on collective worship. As with many polls of this kind, I felt the most appropriate response was to tweet a link to this classic clip, which is what got the conversation started.

The poll is being puffed by Humanists UK, currently seeking to change the law by generating favourable publicity for a case before the courts. For a discussion of the bigger issues, see this post by Jonathan Chaplin on the always informative Law and Religion UK.

There are a number of reasons to be wary of polls, and this one triggers most if not all of my five alerts.

A poll from a campaigning organisation will nearly always have an agenda. That doesn’t make it necessarily wrong or misleading, but it does mean it should be given careful scrutiny. When the poll is related to a current campaign, double the scrutiny.

A single-question poll is nearly always geared towards a news release, designed to give a headline figure on which to get something into the news cycle. Single question polls are not looking for a nuanced understanding of people’s opinions.

Polls often perform sleight-of-hand with the options. In this case, the poll’s question asked about “appropriate topics or activities for assemblies”. Yet in the list that followed only two of the list of 13 could reasonably be described as activities rather than topics: “acts of religious worship” and “celebration of activities”.

Polls often frame the question in ways that help set up the desired outcome. In this case the question stated: “state schools are required by law to hold an assembly every day”. The law actually says “shall begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils”. A question that stated the law with precision might conceivably have made some difference to the figures.

It’s always worth looking at the other figures in polls. Perhaps the most surprising one in this is that only 75% of respondents thought assemblies were appropriate occasions for “celebration of achievements”. I wonder if that reveals something of the lack of knowledge and experience among many people about what assemblies are like?

They may say they’re in favour of scepticism, but in generating a news release from a single question poll, they show they’re depending on credulity.

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