Polls are evil

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(English) This is an essay. It expresses the opinions and ideas of some Wikimedians but may not have wide support. This is not policy on Meta, but it may be a policy or guideline on other Wikimedia projects. Feel free to update this page as needed, or use the discussion page to propose major changes.

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Other essays Polling is evil


Polls are evil. Don't vote on everything, and if you can help it, don't vote on anything.

Or, rather, polling isn't evil in itself, but when you try to distill an essay's worth of thought into a single phrase, that's the sort of oversimplified, divisive statement that happens.

Polling discourages consensus

Having the option of settling a dispute by taking a poll, instead of the careful consideration, dissection and eventual synthesis of each side's arguments, actually undermines the progress in dispute resolution that Wiki has allowed. Wikipedia is not a democracy. This is a strength, not a failing. Dialectics is one of the most important things that make Wiki special, and while taking a poll is very often a lot easier than helping each other find a mutually agreeable position, it's almost never better.

Polling encourages the community to remain divided by avoiding that discourse; participants don't interact with the other voters, but merely choose camps. Establishing consensus requires expressing that opinion in terms other than a choice between discrete options, expanding the reasoning behind it, and addressing the points that others have left, until all come to a mutually agreeable solution. No one can address objections that aren't stated, points that aren't made.

Yes, establishing consensus is a lot harder than taking a poll. So are most things worth doing.

Polling encourages false dichotomy

Very rarely are there only two potential positions on an issue. Simplifying a complex issue to a yes/no vote creates a false dichotomy. For example, in a vote for deletion, the option of merging the article with a similar piece is often ignored. To help counteract this, if you see a third option or compromise that has not been discussed, mention it!

Polling encourages groupthink

Seeing a list of participants in a poll encourages people to add their names. It's easy to just add your name, especially if one side is clearly "winning". Polling factionalizes users who might not even have been that strongly opposed—or that strongly in agreement. Discussion toward consensus requires participants to state their reasoning, and to read and understand the reasoning of others, to see where the situation is headed; polls give a falsely simplified picture. Not to mention that it's difficult to place yourself on the opposite side of users you respect, or on the same side as users you don't.

When the vote is strongly unbalanced, those on the "losing" side feel marginalized, and those on the "winning" side will sometimes feel as though the results of the poll give them license to do as they wish without taking into account the views of the minority, though nothing has been resolved.

Polling isn't fair, either

One of the primary issues with conducting polls is deciding whose votes count. Obviously, it's not fair if one user creates a horde of sockpuppets and uses them to stack a side. How about if someone brings in friends from outside Wikipedia who have barely edited? What about users who have only been around for a few days? Those who are longtime users but haven't read any of the associated discussion or misunderstand some of the issues? Who is the community, and how much weight should each person's voice have? These are difficult questions to answer when conducting a poll; any method of correcting perceived errors and faults in the process will inevitably lead to someone feeling slighted or wronged. In situations where a person or group of persons is charged with calling the final outcome, a decision will be made but its responsibility will fall on their shoulders; a difficult task particularly when they choose for whichever reason not to strictly follow the numbers. Where no one has final authority, it may be that everyone comes out thinking something went awry. ("If only these votes that shouldn't have counted hadn't been and others had, things might be different!") And that's just of those who participate. What of those who do not vote because they don't believe in voting? Under the usual conditions of quick-and-easy first-past-the-post polling it is entirely possible to come out with an answer that is not the one that would most satisfy everyone.

Discussion avoids many these issues of counting by going on the weight of arguments rather than numbers, and making it clear that the reasons rather than the strict count should be more important in determining the outcome. A vote has the outward appearance of strict objective fairness but is likely to come out with an outcome that is still tainted by vote-stacking, based on misunderstanding, or not the option that would be the most acceptable by everyone. It is not quick and not easy to determine the proper outcome of a discussion, as compared to a simple count, but it is the most open to coming up with solutions that may strike a compromise to satisfy more people, and lessens the chance that something will win simply because its proponents can gather more people to sign their names.

Polls are misleading and encourage confusion

As stated above, polling isn't in itself evil. Polls can be useful for a quick gauge of opinion. The problem is that people take the results of a poll as a mandate to do something based on the numbers that turn out—which it is not. It is explicitly stated that Wikipedia is not a democracy—the saying that "what is right is not always popular, and what is popular is not always right" applies.

Yet the existence of polls often implies to editors—particularly new ones—that the result of the vote is what matters, which is why processes such as English Wikipedia's Articles for Deletion are so prone to abuse by sockpuppets. The belief that the result of the poll, and not the commentary that springs from it, is going to decide the fate of the work, is what leads to polls that develop into more and more complex beasts, holding every possible option, leading to no longer two opposing camps but a dozen and pages that look like nothing but a mess to anyone who hasn't been embroiled in the debate. Voters feel misled at the end of a poll if the numerically superior option is not the one acted upon. "But it won the poll!" they claim, and not realizing that a poll is no substitute for consensus, are understandably upset, feeling that their voices have not been heard.


See also