Polls and Sampling Errors in the Presidental Debate Results

My biggest pet peeve is press coverage of statistics. As someone who is mathematically literate, I’m constantly infuriated by it. Basic statistics isn’t that hard, but people can’t be bothered to actually learn a tiny bit in order to understand the meaning of the things they’re covering.

My twitter feed has been exploding with a particularly egregious example of this. After monday night’s presidential debate, there’s been a ton of polling about who “won” the debate. One conservative radio host named Bill Mitchell has been on a rampage about those polls. Here’s a sample of his tweets:

Let’s start with a quick refresher about statistics, why we use them, and how they work.

Statistical analysis has a very simple point. We’re interested in understanding the properties of a large population of things. For whatever reason, we can’t measure the properties of every object in that population.

The exact reason can vary. In political polling, we can’t ask every single person in the country who they’re going to vote for. (Even if we could, we simply don’t know who’s actually going to show up and vote!) For a very different example, my first exposure to statistics was through my father, who worked in semiconductor manufacturing. They’d produce a run of 10,000 chips for use in Satellites. They needed to know when, on average, a chip would fail from exposure to radiation. If they measured that in every chip, they’d end up with nothing to sell.)

Anyway: you can’t measure every element of the population, but you still want to take measurements. So what you do is randomly select a collection of representative elements from the population, and you measure those. Then you can say that with a certain probability, the result of analyzing that representative subset will match the result that you’d get if you measured the entire population.

How close can you get? If you’ve really selected a random sample of the population, then the answer depends on the size of the sample. We measure that using something called the “margin of error”. “Margin of error” is actually a terrible name for it, and that’s the root cause of one of the most common problems in reporting about statistics. The margin of error is a probability measurement that says “there is an N% probability that the value for the full population lies within the margin of error of the measured value of the sample.”.

Right away, there’s a huge problem with that. What is that variable doing in there? The margin of error measures the probability that the full population value is within a confidence interval around the measured sample value. If you don’t say what the confidence interval is, the margin of error is worthless. Most of the time – but not all of the time – we’re talking about a 95% confidence interval.

But there are several subtler issues with the margin of error, both due to the name.

  1. The “true” value for the full population is not guaranteed to be within the margin of error of the sampled value. It’s just a probability. There is no hard bound on the size of the error: just a high probability of it being within the margin..
  2. The margin of error only includes errors due to sample size. It does not incorporate any other factor – and there are many! – that may have affected the result.
  3. The margin of error is deeply dependent on the way that the underlying sample was taken. It’s only meaningful for a random sample. That randomness is critically important: all of sampled statistics is built around the idea that you’ve got a randomly selected subset of your target population.

Let’s get back to our friend the radio host, and his first tweet, because he’s doing a great job of illustrating some of these errors.

The quality of a sampled statistic is entirely dependent on how well the sample matches the population. The sample is critical. It doesn’t matter how big the sample size is if it’s not random. A non-random sample cannot be treated as a representative sample.

So: an internet poll, where a group of people has to deliberately choose to exert the effort to participate cannot be a valid sample for statistical purposes. It’s not random.

It’s true that the set of people who show up to vote isn’t a random sample. But that’s fine: the purpose of an election isn’t to try to divine what the full population thinks. It’s to count what the people who chose to vote think. It’s deliberately measuring a full population: the population of people who chose to vote.

But if you’re trying to statistically measure something about the population of people who will go and vote, you need to take a randomly selected sample of people who will go to vote. The set of voters is the full population; you need to select a representative sample of that population.

Internet polls do not do that. At best, they measure a different population of people. (At worst, with ballot stuffing, they measure absolutely nothing, but we’ll give them this much benefit of the doubt.) So you can’t take much of anything about the sample population and use it to reason about the full population.

And you can’t say anything about the margin of error, either. Because the margin of error is only meaningful for a representative sample. You cannot compute a meaningful margin of error for a non-representative sample, because there is no way of knowing how that sampled population compares to the true full target population.

And that brings us to the second tweet. A properly sampled random population of 500 people can produce a high quality result with a roughly 5% margin of error and a 95% confidence interval. (I’m doing a back-of-the-envelope calculation here, so that’s not precise.) That means that if the population were randomly sampled, we could say there is in 19 out of 20 polls of that size, the full population value would be within +/- 4% of value measured by the poll. For a non-randomly selected sample of 10 million people, the margin of error cannot be measured, because it’s meaningless. The random sample of 500 people tells us a reasonable estimate based on data; the non-random sample of 10 million people tells us nothing.

And with that, on to the third tweet!

In a poll like this, the margin of error only tells us one thing: what’s the probability that the sampled population will respond to the poll in the same way that the full population would?

There are many, many things that can affect a poll beyond the sample size. Even with a truly random and representative sample, there are many things that can affect the outcome. For a couple of examples:

How, exactly, is the question phrased? For example, if you ask people “Should police shoot first and ask questions later?”, you’ll get a very different answer from “Should police shoot dangerous criminal suspects if they feel threatened?” – but both of those questions are trying to measure very similar things. But the phrasing of the questions dramatically affects the outcome.

What context is the question asked in? Is this the only question asked? Or is it asked after some other set of questions? The preceding questions can bias the answers. If you ask a bunch of questions about how each candidate did with respect to particular issues before you ask who won, those preceding questions will bias the answers.

When you’re looking at a collection of polls that asked different questions in different ways, you expect a significant variation between them. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with any of them. They can all be correct even though their results vary by much more than their margins of error, because the margin of error has nothing to do with how you compare their results: they used different samples, and measured different things.

The problem with the reporting is the same things I mentioned up above. The press treats the margin of error as an absolute bound on the error in the computed sample statistics (which it isn’t); and the press pretends that all of the polls are measuring exactly the same thing, when they’re actually measuring different (but similar) things. They don’t tell us what the polls are really measuring; they don’t tell us what the sampling methodology was; and they don’t tell us the confidence interval.

Which leads to exactly the kind of errors that Mr. Mitchell made.

And one bonus. Mr. Mitchell repeatedly rants about how many polls show a “bias” by “over-sampling< democratic party supporters. This is a classic mistake by people who don't understand statistics. As I keep repeating, for a sample to be meaningful, it must be random. You can report on all sorts of measurements of the sample, but you cannot change it.

If you’re randomly selecting phone numbers and polling the respondents, you cannot screen the responders based on their self-reported party affiliation. If you do, you are biasing your sample. Mr. Mitchell may not like the results, but that doesn’t make them invalid. People report what they report.

In the last presidential election, we saw exactly this notion in the idea of “unskewing” polls, where a group of conservative folks decided that the polls were all biased in favor of the democrats for exactly the reasons cited by Mr. Mitchell. They recomputed the poll results based on shifting the samples to represent what they believed to be the “correct” breakdown of party affiliation in the voting population. The results? The actual election results closely tracked the supposedly “skewed” polls, and the unskewers came off looking like idiots.

We also saw exactly this phenomenon going on in the Republican primaries this year. Randomly sampled polls consistently showed Donald Trump crushing his opponents. But the political press could not believe that Donald Trump would actually win – and so they kept finding ways to claim that the poll samples were off: things like they were off because they used land-lines which oversampled older people, and if you corrected for that sampling error, Trump wasn’t actually winning. Nope: the randomly sampled polls were correct, and Donald Trump is the republican nominee.

If you want to use statistics, you must work with random samples. If you don’t, you’re going to screw up the results, and make yourself look stupid.

Why we need formality in mathematics

The comment thread from my last Cantor crankery post has continued in a way that demonstrates a common issue when dealing with bad math, so I thought it was worth taking the discussion and promoting it to a proper top-level post.

The defender of the Cantor crankery tried to show what he alleged to be the problem with Cantor, by presenting a simple proof:

If we have a unit line, then this line will have an infinite number of points in it. Some of these points will be an irrational distance away from the origin and some will be a rational distance away from the origin.

Premise 1.

To have more irrational points on this line than rational points (plus 1), it is necessary to have at least two irrational points on the line so that there exists no rational point between them.

Premise 2.

It is not possible to have two irrational points on a line so that no rational point exists between them.

Conclusion.

It is not possible to have more irrational points on a line than rational points (plus 1).

This contradicts Cantor’s conclusion, so Cantor must have made a mistake in his reasoning.

(I’ve done a bit of formatting of this to make it look cleaner, but I have not changed any of the content.)

This is not a valid proof. It looks nice on the surface – it intuitively feels right. But it’s not. Why?

Because math isn’t intuition. Math is a formal system. When we’re talking about Cantor’s diagonalization, we’re working in the formal system of set theory. In most modern math, we’re specifically working in the formal system of Zermelo-Fraenkel (ZF) set theory. And that “proof” relies on two premises, which are not correct in ZF set theory. I pointed this out in verbose detail, to which the commenter responded:

I can understand your desire for a proof to be in ZFC, Peano arithmetic and FOPL, it is a good methodology but not the only one, and I am certain that it is not a perfect one. You are not doing yourself any favors if you let any methodology trump understanding. For me it is far more important to understand a proof, than to just know it “works” under some methodology that simply manipulates symbols.

This is the point I really wanted to get to here. It’s a form of complaint that I’ve seen over and over again – not just in the Cantor crankery, but in nearly all of the math posts.

There’s a common belief among crackpots of various sorts that scientists and mathematicians use symbols and formalisms just because we like them, or because we want to obscure things and make simple things seem complicated, so that we’ll look smart.

That’s just not the case. We use formalisms and notation because they are absolutely essential. We can’t do math without the formalisms; we could do it without the notation, but the notation makes things clearer than natural language prose.

The reason for all of that is because we want to be correct.

If we’re working with a definition that contains any vagueness – even the most subtle unintentional kind (or, actually, especially the most subtle unintentional kind!) – then we can easily produce nonsense. There’s a simple “proof” that we’ve discussed before that shows that 0 is equal to 1. It looks correct when you read it. But it contains a subtle error. If we weren’t being careful and formal, that kind of mistake can easily creep in – and once you allow one, single, innocuous looking error into a proof, the entire proof falls apart. The reason for all the formalism and all the notation is to give us a way to unambiguously, precisely state exactly what we mean. The reason that we insist of detailed logical step-by-step proofs is because that’s the only way to make sure that we aren’t introducing errors.

We can’t rely on intuition, because our intuition is frequently not correct. That’s why we use logic. We can’t rely on informal statements, because informal statements lack precision: they can mean many different things, some of which are true, and some of which are not.

In the case of Cantor’s diagonalization, when we’re being carefully precise, we’re not talking about the size of things: we’re talking about the cardinality of sets. That’s an important distinction, because “size” can mean many different things. Cardinality means one, very precise thing.

Similarly, we’re talking about the cardinality of the set of real numbers compared to the cardinality of the set of natural numbers. When I say that, I’m not just hand-waving the real numbers: the real numbers means something very specific: it’s the unique complete totally ordered field (R, +, *, <) up to isomorphism. To understand that, we’re implicitly referencing the formal definition of a field (with all of its sub-definitions) and the formal definitions of the addition, multiplication, and ordering operations.

I’m not just saying that to be pedantic. I’m saying that because we need to know exactly what we’re talking about. It’s very easy to put together an informal definition of the real numbers that’s different from the proper mathematical set of real numbers. For example, you can define a number system consisting of the set of all numbers that can be generated by a finite, non-terminating computer program. Intuitively, it might seem like that’s just another way of describing the real numbers – but it describes a very different set.

Beyond just definitions, we insist on using formal symbolic logic for a similar reason. If we can reduce the argument to symbolic reasoning, then we’ve abstracted away anything that could bias or deceive us. The symbolic logic makes every statement absolutely precise, and every reasoning step pure, precise, and unbiased.

So what’s wrong with the “proof” above? It’s got two premises. Let’s just look at the first one: “To have more irrational points on this line than rational points (plus 1), it is necessary to have at least two irrational points on the line so that there exists no rational point between them.”.

If this statement is true, then Cantor’s proof must be wrong. But is this statement true? The commenter’s argument is that it’s obviously intuitively true.

If we weren’t doing math, that might be OK. But this is math. We can’t just rely on our intuition, because we know that our intuition is often wrong. So we need to ask: can you prove that that’s true?

And how do you prove something like that? Well, you start with the basic rules of your proof system. In a discussion of a set theory proof, that means ZF set theory and first order predicate logic. Then you add in the definitions you need to talk about the objects you’re interested in: so Peano arithmetic, rational numbers, real number theory, and the definition of irrational numbers in real number theory. That gives you a formal system that you can use to talk about the sets of real numbers, rational numbers, and natural numbers.

The problem for our commenter is that you can’t prove that premise using ZF logic, FOPL, and real number theory. It’s not true. It’s based on a faulty understanding of the behavior of infinite sets. It’s taking an assumption that comes from our intuition, which seems reasonable, but which isn’t actually true within the formal system o mathematics.

In particular, it’s trying to say that in set theory, the cardinality of the set of real numbers is equal to the cardinality of the set of natural numbers – but doing so by saying “Ah, Why are you worrying about that set theory nonsense? Sure, it would be nice to prove this statement about set theory using set theory, but you’re just being picky on insisting that.”

Once you really see it in these terms, it’s an absurd statement. It’s equivalent to something as ridiculous as saying that you don’t need to modify verbs by conjugating them when you speak english, because in Chinese, the spoken words don’t change for conjugation.