Public opinion might be unpleasant. We should still try to understand it

Pollsters have attracted controversy for asking questions about transphobia and anti-semitism. 

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The very nature of public opinion polls is that they are not strictly private. By definition, the questions will be seen by 2,000-or-so ordinary members of the public, and there is nothing stopping these people from repeating them to their friends, or taking screen shots and posting them online. In the social media era, this can sometimes lead to people getting upset over the questions – asking whether or not they are fair, or even whether it was right to ask about a particular subject. This recently happened to us with a question we ran for an academic, asking about the voting franchise, and whether prisoners or benefit claimants should be allowed to vote.

In this case, the criticism seemed, in part, to be based on a misapprehension that the questions polling companies ask reflect the views held by the companies or their owners. While we do sometimes run some questions for publicity, the vast majority of our work is for paying clients – this is, after all, how polling companies make their money. So, the answer to the question "Why are YouGov asking that question?" is almost always “because a client has commissioned us to ask it”.

If you want to know why clients have commissioned it, then the best answer I can give is to explain who political pollsters' clients normally are. People often assume that we spend most of our time doing polling for newspapers and political parties. In reality, we do comparatively little for either. The bulk of our "political" work is actually for university academics, think tanks, public affairs companies, and charities. If you see a question about contentious or extreme views – or opinions you find offensive – then it's a fairly comfortable bet that it has either been conducted for an academic studying the issue or for a charity campaigning against that viewpoint.

Charities campaigning against prejudices will often use opinion polling to measure how widespread those views are – both as a way of highlighting the issue and also to track their progress in changing public opinion. Equally the impact of populist parties in recent politics means that, in recent years, a lot of political academics have been commissioning polls that have included questions on attitudes that some might see as authoritarian or racist.

For example, in the past we've asked about transphobia and homophobia for LGBT charities, we've asked about anti-semitism for those campaigning against anti-semitism, we've asked about racist views for anti-racist campaigns. We've also asked about these issues for academics studying authoritarian populism.

That brings us to the fundamental question: even if it's for a client, is it OK to ask about these sorts of subjects? Well, as pollsters we have a duty to make sure questions are asked in a fair and unbiased manner; but assuming that they are asked appropriately, we do not shy away from asking about difficult topics. If a charity wants to measure the proportion of people holding prejudiced views on sexuality, or if an academic is researching whether or not racist attitudes in Britain are in decline, the only way to achieve solid data is to commission polling companies to ask the public.

The only way to understand public opinion – including those parts of it that many may find unpleasant – is to ask about it. If you want academics to be able to study and understand extremism and prejudice, they need to be able to collect data on it. If you want charities and campaigning groups to be able to effectively fight against views you oppose, then they need to be able to research and understand what they are fighting against.

So, next time you see a question about a view you find offensive, the odds are that the people looking to measuring that view are just as opposed to it as you are.

Anthony Wells is Research Director at YouGov. He writes about politics and polling on his website, ukpollingreport.co.uk. He tweets @anthonyjwells.