Peter Hitchens on opinion polls: what he really said

When polling figures which appear that someone doesn’t like, it’s not uncommon to see this quote from Peter Hitchens deployed:

Opinion polls are a device for influencing public opinion, not a device for measuring it. Crack that, and it all makes sense.

What’s much less quoted is the rest of what Peter Hitchens has to say about polls. Look at the full context and you’ll see that Peter Hitchens has a very different attitude towards opinion polls than just that quote suggests.

Writing a piece in response to the popularity of his quote, Peter Hitchens said:

I can’t actually trace the point when I originally said it, but I don’t dispute having said so…

But when I say ‘It all makes sense’, what sense does it make?

Please grasp that it is nothing so crude as ‘all polls are rigged and they are not telling the truth’. I am absolutely not saying anything so daft. The basic research work in opinion polls conducted by the major organisations is sound. It has to be. Their main work is done not for politicians but for businesses seeking to sell their products. They need to be right, or they will be put out of business.

He then went on to say:

Polls can be misused, misinterpreted and misunderstood. But the basic facts they reveal, carefully studied, are truthful. If their predictions are wrong it is because opinions change, or because of factors they have been unaware of . What I said about polls was never intended to be a blanket dismissal of their significance, and people should stop using it as such.

As for how to carefully study the polls, take a look at my new book, Polling Unpacked: the history, uses and abuses of political opinion polls.

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