How do pollsters ensure they will get the results desired by the organization paying for the poll? By asking an opening question that polarizes the respondents into 2 camps, and by using biased language in that first question to ensure that those caught unaware are led into the desired camp. For example, Zogby International was hired by supporters of physician-assisted suicide to show that Vermonters support a major change in the law which would allow a doctor to give a deadly drug to terminally ill patients who want to use it as a means of suicide. To set the stage, the pollster said: “Which of the following 2 options most closely represents your belief. A: If I am terminally ill, within six months of dying with no hope of recovery, the decision about when I should be able to bring a peaceful end to my suffering is mine to make in accordance with my wishes and in consultation with my family and loved ones. B: Given the sacredness of human life, only God should decide when my life ends.” Interpretation: Do you want control, love, peace and comfort, or do you want decisions about the treatment of your hopeless condition taken out of your hands? Now that the respondents are polarized, they can be asked if they support legislation to “request and receive medication from a physician to peacefully end suffering and hasten death”, being careful not to mention that this drug will actually cause death by suicide.
Another option to skew the results is to include a hypothetical statement that is factually incorrect to further sway the respondent. Zogby pollsters asked “Would you be more or less likely to favor such legislation if you knew the State of Oregon has had this legislation for seven years, and during that time it improved all stages of end-of-life care and pain management, and no one has been pressured to request or take the medication against their will or would it make no difference?” In fact, a survey of family members published recently in the Journal of Palliative Medicine showed the number of Oregonians dying in severe pain increased by 50% between 1996 and 2002 (the assisted suicide law went into effect in 1997).
Zogby International, a market research company, offers “products and services” that are “targeted, comprehensive and customized to your needs”. But are they valid? I don’t think so.
Robert D. Orr, MD,CM
President, Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare