Sword and the Script

The Pope and market research surveys



by Frank Strong

Two of my favorite quotes come from Mark Twain, who wrote classic grade-school-fiction-books like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The humorist and author is attributed as saying:

“I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one.”

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Statistics are often produced from surveys and the latter quote and my last post, which included a number of marketing and PR statistics, reminded me of little story that always gives me something to think about when developing surveys:

Two priests want to know if they can smoke and pray at the same time.

One priests asks the Pope, “When I’m praying, is it okay to smoke?”

The Pope replies, “No, when you are praying that is all you should be focused on.”

The other priest poses his question to the Pope in a slightly different construct and asks, “When I am smoking, is it okay for me to pray?”

The Pope replies, “Yes, it is always appropriate to pray anytime.”

Since surveys are intended to represent the collective thinking of a large group of people, by definition, they are influential. To that end, the obvious moral of the story is that the validity and altruism of survey results is contingent upon asking the right questions.

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