STATS Spotlight

No Choice

by Howard Fienberg
June 15, 2001

USA Today’s “Snapshots” feature demonstrates the advantages in graphical displays of data, but it is not always discriminating in its data sources. A case in point came May 7, headlined “Boomers target foreign aid.” Reporting on a Del-Webb survey, it said that “baby boomers believe that aid to foreign countries should be eliminated to reduce taxes.” It then showed the responses: “Aid to foreign countries: 66%, Welfare: 14%, Military: 10% and Social Security: 3%.”

Was the survey representative? It sampled 37 year-olds and 55 year-olds. Even Del-Webb’s executive summary noted that it did not represent baby boomers as a whole, as the USA Today led its readers to believe.

Was the question well-conceived? It asked, “To reduce taxes, if you had to eliminate one of the following, which would you choose?” The four responses listed in USA Today were the only options available. Presenting a limited number of options, three of which most people would deem unthinkable, guarantees a majority against foreign aid.

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, expressed further surprise at the poll. “If there is a news story here, it is that an extraordinary 27 percent of respondents were so committed to foreign aid that they would prefer to eliminate the military, welfare or social security.”

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