Jul 13, 2017

How do you explain something complex and convince a skeptic?

The year was 1999. I was an avid viewer of election results as a teenager. The constantly changing numbers, which candidate is leading where and who won which constituency excited me a lot.

The counting of votes used to start by 8 AM. I was already glued to TV even before the counting started. There was a panel discussion. These experts and the news anchor were discussing EXIT POLLS which were announced a day before.

The representative of the political party, which was predicted to lose as per exit polls, was also present. He was arguing that exit polls are based on small samples and are incorrect.

In the panel was one psephologist (an expert who analyses elections). His name was Yogendra Yadav. He was convinced that sampling works and the exit polls, though not 100% accurate, needed to be taken seriously.

Instead of arguing in abstract terms, he offered an example which silenced the political candidate completely.

Mr. Yadav asked the candidate, "Have you ever cooked rice, Mr. Ganguly. There are millions of individual grains inside. And how do you check if the rice is cooked properly? Do you press each grain with your hand? No, you don't. You take out 2-3 grains and press them against the spoon. If they have cooked well, you know that the entire bowl is ready to be eaten. Exit polls work like that. There are billions of people in India. We go and ask few thousands and from this, we deduce which way the mood is swinging."


It was a light-bulb moment for me. It made me believe in exit polls (and in sampling as a technique) and I have remembered this example two decades later. The next time you are answering a skeptic, use an example. It will work.