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P for Polls

Written exclusively for Salaam by al-Maktabi

Polls, more often than not, reflect an underlying political agenda. Pollsters are commercial organizations working to briefs from clients who have a pretty good idea on the hypothesis they are seeking to validate. A recent UK poll has been much-quoted to suggest that the country's multicultural project has failed and no further public recognition should be given to faith communities, most obviously Muslims. This is the YouGov poll published in the Daily Telegraph on 23rd July that "sought to gauge the character of the Muslim community's response to the events of July 7".

Jonathan Freedland, who a week earlier had used a column in 'The Guardian' to lacerate London Mayor Ken Livingstone for sympathy for the Palestinian cause (Guardian, 27th July) on 3rd August noted in the same paper that the 7th July bombings served as 'proof' that Muslims "represented a potentially lethal fifth column" - an insinuation that hardly serves community relations in Britain. In the same article Freeland quotes the poll:"A YouGov survey for the Daily Telegraph last month found that a clear majority of British Muslims felt loyal to Britain - but 18%, nearly one in five, did not".

A closer examination of the YouGov survey methodology suggests that its controversial findings - which included "88 per cent of British Muslims clearly have no intention of trying to justify the bus and Tube murders. However, six per cent insist that the bombings were, on the contrary, fully justified" (Telegraph, 23rd July) - are not really based on sound statistics. The basis for scientific polling is probability sampling, because this gives a basis for assessing the statistical margin of error. To draw a true random sample, every member of the population should have an equal probability of being selected. However YouGov selects its sample from a panel of volunteers and sends them an email, or places questionnaires on websites. The respondents are therefore not randomly selected, but self-selected and will represent certain biases e.g. internet awareness.

Secondly, Muslims in Britain are about 3% of the overall population. Pollsters define this as a 'rare population' - one in which probability sampling can become very expensive. To get a sample of 500, it is reported that a pollster "would need to reach a sample of over 18,500". The YouGov poll was non-random and based on 526 respondents. The methods to extrapolate from this number to reflect on the British Muslim population as a whole warrant academic scrutiny. It is thus a moot point whether findings based on such self-selected samples reflect the geographically dispersed and culturally and socio-economically diverse British Muslim community. The events of July 2005 have turned many a journalist into a soi-disant policy wonk - though entirely lacking training in social research methods. They are offering policy prescriptions based on dodgy foundations e.g. Freedland prescribes that "Britain should follow the US approach to citizenship".

The politics of surveys are just as important as surveys of politics. In December 2003, the European Commission released a poll showing that most Europeans (59% in a sample size of 500) considered Israel a threat to world peace. Would Freedland ever refer to this poll? Not likely.