Angus Reid Takes Sides – With the Anti-Choice

The Activist, Spring 2012

By Joyce Arthur

Demonstrating contempt for polls (sic.)

In February, the polling agency Angus Reid suffered a public embarrassment when its Vice-President Mario Canseco lashed out angrily at ARCC’s exposure of their latest poll as fatally flawed and biased.

I had published an article in The Mark on February 15th [now available here] describing the poll and its serious defects, titled “Angus Reid and the ‘False Dilemma’ Fallacy.” [A summary of the poll’s flaws is below.] Canseco posted a response on his blog just a few hours later. Incredibly, he ignored or misrepresented virtually everything I said. He had nothing whatsoever to say against my main premise that his survey questions suffered from the false dilemma fallacy and a lack of third options. Also, I had explained that medical treatments are not subject to civil or criminal laws and abortion should be no exception, but Canseco was oblivious, asserting that abortion is a “legislative issue” and ludicrously comparing having no laws on abortion to having no laws on torture, the death penalty, marijuana, or gay marriage.

An indispensable requirement of scientific polling, according to Russell D. Renka, Professor of Political Science of the University of Missouri, is that “questions must be worded in a clear and neutral fashion.” He explains in his article “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Public Opinion Polling” [no longer online but here is similar source] “Avoid wording that will bias subjects toward or away from a particular point of view. The object is to discover what respondents think, not to influence or alter it. Along with clear wording is an appropriate set of options for the subject to choose.” Renka listed several hallmarks of bad polls, the worst of which are prominently featured in Canseco’s poll. For example, it was similar to a “push-poll” in which questions contain false or negative  information designed to influence a respondent to vote or answer in a certain way (either in an election or in the poll itself). It was also much like a “hired gun poll” that is commissioned and carried out to promote a particular agenda and is associated with a “reckless disregard for objectivity.”

One might assume that an anti-choice group commissioned and funded this Angus Reid poll, as is the case for many other abortion polls, but apparently not in this case. After all, Canseco could have easily used that as a defense for his flawed poll, but instead he focused on Angus Reid’s right to conduct surveys on controversial issues. The pollster has carried out its own abortion survey at least once before, a 2010 poll which I had also critiqued as biased and flawed. At the time, I asked Angus Reid who had commissioned that poll, and Jaideep Mukerji (another Vice-President at Angus Reid), said they undertook it themselves because abortion is an important social issue and “one that we want to make sure we understand.” Surely it’s also because the issue garners a lot of attention and therefore free publicity for them.

One other point in Canseco’s “rebuttal” deserves mention, because he seemed to believe it was his triumphant coup de grace against me. In fact, it was an irrelevant strawman he erected in order to distract readers from my exposure of his poll’s insurmountable defects. Canseco accused me of being contradictory because the ARCC website says that an “unrestricted right” to abortion exists in Canada, while my article explained that abortions after 20 weeks are restricted via medical policy and practice. In fact, ARCC’s website statement is part of our vision of how things should be, not how they are. Further, the statement is clearly against legal and discriminatory barriers to abortion access, while the Canadian Medical Association policy on induced abortion cited in my article is neither a law nor discriminatory. It gives doctors the discretion to perform abortion after 20 weeks under “exceptional circumstances.” An example of a discriminatory barrier would be the shortage of doctors and facilities able to do these rare abortions after 20 weeks, resulting in some women having to travel out-of-province or even to the U.S. for essential healthcare.

As if Canseco’s atrociously bad logic, false equivalencies, and irrelevancies were not enough, his tone was also condescending and ad hominen. For example, he implied that I had some kind of immature emotional reaction upon discovering that “Canadians disagree with [my] point of view,” so that’s why I tried to “steer the conversation into the credibility of a polling company.” What an arrogant erasure of the fact that I proved his questions to be fatally biased and his results meaningless.

Polls on controversial social issues rarely yield clear or meaningful data, because such issues are complex and politicized, leading to a high potential for oversimplification and bias in the poll questions. This may be why polls tend to serve right-wing interests, because the black-and-white nature of polling lends itself well to a conservative worldview that prefers certainty and hard numbers over ambiguity and shades of grey. The lesson in this for pro-choicers is never to trust polls on abortion – especially from Angus Reid. Canseco’s diatribe served only to confirm suspicions that Angus Reid has lost all impartiality and become stridently anti-choice.

Summary of the Poll’s Flaws

Angus Reid asked two misleading and inaccurately-worded questions, rendering the results invalid. The false dilemma fallacy occurs when someone is asked to choose between only two options when other options are available. The poll provided only two possible answers for each question – to have, or not to have, laws restricting abortion (question 1) or laws restricting sex selection abortion (question 2). In both cases, third options were missing. Question 1 should have included the actual status quo, in which medical practices in Canada are governed not by law, but by policies, codes of ethics, clinical protocols, and the medical discretion of healthcare professionals. Question 2 ignored the obvious third option of public education and community initiatives to raise awareness around the harms of sex selection and the value of girls. The poll’s use of the false dilemma completely invalidated the questions and results. In addition, Question 1 used inflammatory and inaccurate anti-choice language to describe the alleged status quo: “A woman should have the unrestricted right to have an abortion at any time up to the moment of birth.” In reality, late abortions are rare, done only for very serious reasons, and never at the point of birth.

Joyce Arthur is ARCC’s Executive Director.

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