The mystery of public opinion polls to many Kenyans

“Opinion polls are just that.” That’s the common statement people make when they can’t reconcile with the statistics presented by a given research organization. Perhaps they also need to contend with the fact “they will always be here.”

The science of public opinion research evades many Kenyans just as it does most people elsewhere. This is because, to many, actual polling results outcomes are based on absolute census numbers, for instance: the number of boys and girls in class four, and how many of them have ever gone for an educational trip. For the ordinary citizen, this kind of analysis makes sense than taking a sample.

With regard to a national survey sample, it is very difficult for many people to understand how the views of 2,000 people from across the country can represent those of about 20 million adults. That’s a common question I have been asked for the last 10 years in my research career, not just by family members and friends but by others with whom I have interacted everywhere. My simplest response is another question: “when you go to the doctor and present certain symptoms that require diagnosis, does he or she put you on the surgery bed and with the knives and blades open up your entire system to check what the problem is?” The obvious answer is NO. Usually such diagnosis requires only a blood or stool sample, and within minutes or hours, your illness is known and presented to you. This is medical science at work. It is this science that also underpins public opinion research, only in a different way, because in this case we are dealing with people’s past and future expected behavior, knowledge, attitudes and perceptions towards various subject matters.

This science remains new to many Kenyans. Few people are privileged to have taken statistics classes in college. It might also be assumed that those who write an undergraduate or post-graduate dissertation on the subject would be more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, too many such students enlist the help of professional theses- and dissertation-writers. This means that their understanding of research and interpretation remains limited even though they have sat in class and eventually graduated.

That aside, the research industry in Kenya has some real talent, from methodologists who will advise you on sampling techniques or questionnaire design suitable for any kind of study, to data analysts who will look at survey numbers and give you insights that could take others a decade to draw. Too often, people look at survey numbers with the naked eye and immediately hit the roof or jump for joy, depending on what they think they mean. Those who understand the value of numbers seek an explanation to the causal effects and what can be done to counter unpleasant realities. These are the strategists, working in such major corporations as Coca-Cola and Google.

In Kenya, I am yet to come across strategists working for political groups/parties who rely on numbers, and I am sure that those who do are relatively few, since most such supporters/activists are guided more by sycophancy than by empirical research. By contrast, the latter approach drives political strategy in America and other developed democracies. Evidence of this is found in Sasha Issenberg’s ‘The Victory Lab’, a micro-account of the use of survey and other data-based research in Barack Obama’s first (2008) presidential campaign.

How does the science of public opinion research work? Let me use an example to illustrate. In Umala village where I come from, people have a particular way of doing things: interacting at market centres, on their way to the farms, at funerals, weddings, at the local busaa or chang’aa brewer’s place, and in church. They help each other put up homes and generally feel part of each other’s lives. What this means is that their views on various public issues are aligned most of the time, or at least expected to be, due to information-sharing. No wonder every time a few of us deviate from such views or behaviour, we are warned of “dire consequences” to be meted upon us by the ancestors. Consequently, if as a researcher, I wanted to study particular understanding (knowledge), attitudes and perceptions, I would not have to assemble the entire village, but rather use science and interview only a randomly-selected (relatively small) number of people.

The reality of polling numbers is that they can make one very uncomfortable when they are deemed to be unfavorable. Due to human nature, the immediate response is employment of defense mechanisms. It is for this reason that individuals or groups resort to name-calling in a bid to rationalize their position.

Such rejection of opinion polls is not unique to political subjects. Market researchers (also pollsters) will tell you that they frequently go through this with their clients, especially first time research clients. I once witnessed a situation where an organization’s management almost rejected a market share survey report because they did not believe the numbers until a marketing assistant mentioned that the numbers matched what she had seen as absolute sales figures from a competing firm. The sales numbers were consistent with the market share data that the research agency was presenting. Resistance will normally persist until the organization employs a remedial strategy or gives up on the product or service.

Lastly, when you visit a physician who happens to be a co-ethnic, and you have done some medical tests, do you expect him or her to tell you that you are fine even when you are not simply you share such ethnic identity?