Tuesday, August 21, 2012
The $100 Question: When Does Polling Produce Bad Decisions?
Economists always talk about how money is just a symbolic representation of wealth. In effect, a $100 bill is only worth $100 because we believe it to be. But symbols are also powerful in their own way and the redesign of the bills led the staid Bank of Canada into the ever-troubled waters of political correctness and dubious cultural values.
The new hundred dollar bill has an number of iconographic representations: Prime Minister Robert Borden (an early 20th century Conservative), a DNA strand, a tower from the Parliament buildings in Ottawa and a young female scientist peering through what appears to be a neutron microscope.
So far, so inoffensive.
Except when the Bank of Canada took a poll, the people surveyed objected to the young woman, claiming she looked "unrepresentative" and "too Asian."
Even the Chinese Canadian Congress objected claiming that the original design reinforced the stereotype of Asian affinity for the sciences.
The Canadian Press discovered this through an access to information request. CP reported that the Bank of Canada ordered a change so that the young woman now has white features. That has created yet another backlash from people opposed to the Bank's perceived default mode of "normal" Canadians being white.
My problem with this issue is with the polling.
It was conducted in Charlottetown, PEI and Québec City. I doubt that either area is a hotbed of racism or intolerance. But both cities are small and remarkably uniform in culture. Neither could be considered diverse: Atlantic Canada is still strongly Scottish and Irish. Quebec City is of course, massively French-speaking. So yes, the original $100 bill did in fact, probably did represent the people who were polled. But in more diverse cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, the results would have been quite different.
If the Bank of Canada wanted an accurate poll, it should have done it across the country. The sample size would have been more than 1000 and polling should have included people with cell phones, not just landlines.
My guess is that this poll was done between 9 am and 5 pm, thus guaranteeing that the people who answered the phones at that time were either retired or unemployed. Certainly older. And when polling is done on the cheap, there is no "return to sample" - that means that if there is no one at home, a responsible pollster calls back in the evening.
The Bank of Canada's tight fiscal policies seem to have affected their own pollsters. The embarrassment that this poll produced is entirely self-inflicted.