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Interpreting Polls

Whether public or confidential, polls are now a part of the political, economical, and social landscapes. Governments and political parties, media and all sorts of organizations make use of them, even though this type of inquiry can never provide a valid measure for a given situation. More often than not, polls will reveal not only a diversity of opinions, but also much confusion.

(Source: poll can serve to assess public opinion on a legislative bill, a product, or a particular issue. Polls cannot validate the relevancy or the value of the object of the questions, but it provides an idea of how it may be received. Results will dictate a strategy. On occasion, results are used to justify or discredit a position. Polls are both a means of researching the evolution of society, and a means of bringing about change.

A poll’s authority is based on the notion that public opinion is essential to a democratic society. Polls are even resorted to – sometimes abusively so – for seeking out a majority opinion in support of controversial issues (death penalty), or minority rights (language, religion). Potential political candidacies are measured according to favour expressed in polls. The word itself has taken on a negative connotation, as in the expression “governing by polls.”

Polls are supposed to reflect public opinion trends. The media views them as a way to give the public a voice. However, the public perceives polls according its own notions. The public can therefore be manipulated, depending on the questions that are chosen or left unsaid. Ideas and preferences evolve, and are likely to change drastically, following emotionally charged events.

A poll’s requirements

A poll requires the following: neutral questions, anonymity of the respondents, reliability of the sample, and credibility of the poll conductor and its sponsor. It is often assumed that polls are scientific and objective, although they are sometimes contradictory. Notions called upon in polls may have different interpretations. This is notable in the case of bioethics, and makes it difficult to obtain an accurate perspective on opinion trends.  

An example of such complexity came about in 2009, when Quebec’s Federation of Specialist Doctors published the results of their poll on the “delicate” question of euthanasia, an issue they deemed was of utmost concern for all physicians. All 8,717 members were polled, but only 2,025 answered. The response rate is not as weak as it seems. The poll’s flaws are to be found elsewhere.

First, how many members did not answer, due to fear of being identified? Moreover, 1,734 respondents used the Internet – a means not all poll conductors agree on. How many members were of the opinion that it is up to patients, and to society, to take a stand on the question of euthanasia? The results showed division among doctors about palliative sedation. 

Finally, the diversity of medical specialities – 35 in total in the federation – is not conducive to shaping a clear opinion. While a slight majority of respondents (52%) thought that euthanasia was practiced “often” or “sometimes”, a strong minority answered “rarely” (29%). 

This example is revealing of the fact that an opinion founded in such a weak basis cannot serve to determine any given option.

Therefore, it is vital that we exercise caution when considering poll results, because they can never, in and of themselves, offer an exhaustive and precise view on such crucial social issues as those concerning bioethical questions. 



Jean-Claude Leclerc, journalist
Ethics and Religion columnist at Le Devoir
Journalism professor at the Université de Montréal


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