Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Data, and my failure to provide it

I was the subject of a randomized telephone poll. There are a few things that I think are major impediments to the political life of this country. One is 24-hour news/opinion channels of any flavor, in which the constant barrage of data impedes any actual thinking. Another is the emphasis placed on polls, in which noise masquerades as data. Here was the first question in the telephone poll, asked by what sounded like a young woman who was dutifully, flatly, reading her script: Do you think the country is going in the right direction or the wrong direction?

Now, what does that mean? There’s plenty of stuff that is going to heck at high speed. But you know, compared with just ten years ago, we’ve elected a black man as a president, my gay friends are generally accepted in society, and I look at the students in my classes and I see many attitudes that represent a lot of progress from when I was a student. Am I supposed to take an arithmetic average of every factor? Or a median? I responded, unhelpfully, “I don’t know,” which was not part of the script. She checked with her supervisor, then soldiered on.

Most of the questions were about high school education. I was told I was supposed to answer them from the choices provided, but answering them honestly would have required me to know details about high school students and curricula that I simply don’t know. So I told them as much, and after a few minutes of questioning, the pollster gave up. I wasn’t trying to be difficult, just honest.

This made clear to me just how pernicious polling data is. It really is all about gut feelings—Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness”—and doesn’t have anything to do with a rational analysis of the situation. Then, the polls get reported and they feed forward onto themselves, because no one wants to be in the minority. And so decisions get made. All power to Luther H. Puttgrass!

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