How Reliable are “Opinion Polls” and “Lists”

How Reliable are “Opinion Polls” and “Lists”
How Reliable are “Opinion Polls” and “Lists”

Ours is an age when we are inundated by the results of “opinion polls” in every sphere of human activity. Everyday when you open the newspaper or switch on the television you come to know the results of an “opinion poll” in respect of some subject such as the” The Ten greatest actors” or “The Ten most famous Tennis players” or “The Ten most famous painters” and so on, conducted in some part of the world by some organisation. Similarly “The Guinness Book of World Records” carries thousands of “Lists”, or “Records”. However with the advent of computers such information is more freely available, thanks to YouTube and Google.

I had written in the Hindu, about four decades ago about the results of an overseas poll conducted by “the BBC” which had concluded that Sir Issac Newton was the “Greatest Briton” of all time, followed by Churchill and Princess Diana. I had expressed my views that Newton’s great achievements in science seem to have influenced the outcome; while in the case of Churchill, it was his leadership qualities during World War II. I had also opined that ranking Diana third had destroyed the credibility of the whole exercise. No doubt her charm, kindness and involvement in charitable causes contributed greatly to make her an icon all over the world. But as had been pointed out by me, that is where the admiration for her had to stop. Including her in a list of 10 Greatest Britons of all time was carrying things a little too far.

However, I was shocked to find Shakespeare, the greatest genius of all time, had been relegated to the status of a `runner-up’ in the BBC opinion poll.

I was also unable to understand why Darwin had been denied his rightful place, considering that his contribution to biology is as significant as Newton’s is to physics.

Quite recently I wrote and published an article titled “The best cricket team of all time” challenging the choice of players to be included in such a team by Bradman. I had also written an article on ‘On actors and movies’. I must confess that nostalgia had influenced my views to a certain extent. But verdicts given in several authoritative books written by knowledgeable persons on the basis of authentic statistical data (in respect of cricket) and time-honoured traits intuitive­ly and universally regarded as essential for an actor to be referred to as ‘great’ had conveyed a moral sanction to my opinions.

In this connection, I would like to invite the attention of the general reader to the so called ‘opinion polls’ held from time to time in different parts of the world by various organisations which announce the name of the ‘winner’ in almost every field of human endeavour with an air of ‘finality’.

Some years ago, all Indians had been delighted to hear the verdict of the ‘BBC’ that Amitabh Bachchan was most popular actor of all time, and that he had even been immortalised in wax in Madame Tussaud’s in London (another news item appeared about a poll result showing Robert de Niro as the greatest actor of all time). I am also a great fan of Amitabh and have seen most of his films. I still watch with interest his show ‘Kaun Banega Crorepati’ on television, which he conducts with style and dignity. But I am afraid that this is where our admiration for the man must stop. Period. To get over excited by our own enthusiasm and patriotism and take the result of some isolated poll, conducted under circumstances we are not aware of as ‘gospel truth’, merely because it suits us would be erroneous.

The greatness of a good tennis player must be judged by his performance at Wimbledon or Roland Garros over a period of time—not by the members of the Secunderabad club or the results of an “opinion poll” conducted in Jubilee Hills or Begumpet. The same is the case with Robert de Niro. No doubt he is one of the best actors today. But I doubt whether he can be put in the class of Sir Ian McKellen and Antony Hopkins who are considered by many as the greatest living actors. In a list of the greatest actors of all time prepared by any recognised ‘authority’ on movies anywhere, Sir Law­rence Oliver would be at the top along with Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson (the famous British trio). They will be followed closely by Sir Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Kenneth Branagh, Sir Alec Guinneness, Ronald Colman, Spencer Tracy, Frederick March, Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, etc. Oliver’s position as the greatest actor of the twentieth century is unquestioned and his stature as a colossus is acknowledged by other great actors like Spencer Tracy, and Charleton Heston. In fact Spencer Tracy referred to Olivier as ‘the greatest of them all. The order of greatness of the other actors mentioned above can perhaps be shuffled about. In two separate television interviews Antony Hopkins expressed his admiration for Lawrence Olivier referring to him as a “Titan”. He also said that Lawrence Olivier had an “electric force” and that he had a passion for “perfection” on which he would never have compromised. He also stated that Lawrence Olivier had given him some sane advice as to how to react to the suggestions of Directors in a mature fashion, which he followed.

Let us now come to cricket. Just when we had been recovering from the shock of the great Don having made the mistake of excluding Walter Hammond, Neil Harvey, Harold Larwood and Jim Laker from his dream team, Ian Botham of England came out with a list of 100 cricketers that excluded the great Don himself.

Of course, Botham justified his selection rather unconvincingly, by stating that he had named only players he had been associated with. If that were to be the case, every player can come out with a list of his own.

On the other hand, I would have expected Botham, one of the ‘greatest all-rounders’ not to commit such a blunder. It would have been perhaps better for Botham not to have come out with such a book that does not pay homage to the Don, notwithstanding his criteria for making his choice.

For all these reasons “opinion polls” and “Lists” of 10 greatest, or “10 most famous” prepared by various organisations, as well as prominent persons in any field are unreliable, and misleading and deserve to be ignored. Of course the “opinion polls” conducted by several news agencies predicting results of elections in our country reflect only the political affiliation and wishful thinking of the concerned News agencies.


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