The Unbiased Eye

A scientist's commentary on events and culture

Polls: Pseudo Information

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I hate opinion polls. I think they’re a big mistake, and they’re hurting the political process. It’s tough to get into the details of the big questions in Washington. It’s easy to brush them aside, declare that politicians suck and go on about your business. Political polls enable that tendency.

In fact, the message of the latest Washington Post-ABC poll is just that: politicians suck. What does this mean? People who answer polls always hate Congress and yet the re-election rate is phenomenally good for incumbents. This doesn’t add up.

Below you’ll find an experiment. I answered as many of the poll questions that I could tolerate. I answered them in words, not multiple choice.

It’s a serious mistake to think that you can reduce subjective questions to multiple choice tests. Human beings are not temperature measurements, chemical compounds, manufactured products, or other things that come out of mechanical processes vary and lend themselves to statistical analysis.

For one thing, we all understand language differently. Language is uniquely human (and my apologies to everyone who believes his cat understands him), and endlessly subtle. All of the political topics in the survey have been so mangled by partisan slogans and posturing, there’s no telling how any individual actually hears these questions.

No adjustment for mood is remotely possible. Here’s an example: Yesterday, Joe hears rumors about drastic layoffs at his company. He’s not particularly confident he will survive. He’s behind on his mortgage. His daughter quit high school and ran away with a biker. His wife hasn’t talked to him in three days. He’s sitting there watching TV with a beer.

Today at work, he finds out his supervisor whom he hated was canned and he’s being promoted to fill the job. He gets a raise with this. He comes home to find a tearful daughter proclaiming what an idiot she was, promising to work hard in school. And his wife cooked his favorite meal and winked.

On which day did the poll takers call Joe?

There’s a big technical problem. Forget Joe and take Jack. No big events in his life. Can you be sure that Jack would answer any of these vague, subjective questions the same way on different days? There’s no way to measure the variance, because not even mild-mannered Jack would have the patience to answer the same question over and over again.

If any statistical observation can be expected to change a lot, the math has to be adjusted to consider this, or the conclusions are nonsense.

And I’m not going to mention sampling problems. The professional poll takers assure the liberal arts, math-phobic editors that their methods are sound and that 1,000 people can stand in for 300 million. I’d have to do too much work to understanding the sampling, and why bother?

Now here are my answers to the first seven questions. I couldn’t stand it any more, but these should be sufficient.

If you wanted to, you could answer these questions and give your answers to a bunch of friends, and have them categorize your answers, that is reduce them to the multiple choice test: strongly approve, somewhat approve, etc. Will they agree with one another?

Just remember, this is how we influence national policy.

My shortest answers to the Washington Post-ABC News Poll:

1. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president? Do you approve/disapprove strongly or somewhat?

Me: I am irritated by his noncontroversial persona. I’m not sure if he is like that by nature, or if it’s a political strategy. Either way, I can’t argue with it. I’d make a lousy politician. Compared to the Republicans who have stoked up their campaign machines, Obama is 100 times better than any and all.

2a. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling the economy? Do you approve/disapprove strongly or somewhat?

Me: Presidents do not have much power to significantly alter the economic cycles of a market economy. As long as they don’t tamper with the huge public outlays — social security for old people, welfare for poor people and unemployment for jobless people — the politicians are doing OK. Of course, eliminating or cutting those so-called entitlements would be political suicide, so not even Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman would do that. They’re not so dumb. And it’s a good thing. Without social benefits, we would all be selling pencils by now thanks to the banking debacle.

2b. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling the federal budget deficit? Do you approve/disapprove strongly or somewhat?

Me: The answer to this is a lot like the above. I think it’s nuts to continue keeping taxes so low, and they are low compared to other wealthy, industrial countries, when we have a rather large deficit and problems on the horizon with the social benefits above. That’s especially true for tax rates on the rich, but it’s also true for the hallowed middle class. But the reality is that the tax demagogues and the public’s inattention to the details prevents sound policy from being politically viable.

2c. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling the political unrest in the Middle East and North Africa? Do you approve/disapprove strongly or somewhat?

Me: This is a dumb question. What do you mean by handling? Do we really handle situations in other countries? Are you suggesting some action that the United States may or may not have taken? Are you talking about public statements by the White House? Beyond that, do you realize that this is actually about eight question. Let’s assume I understand what you mean by handle, and let’s assume that I think Obama’s right on five of them and wrong on three. Do you want a rundown?

2d. Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling the situation in Libya? Do you approve/disapprove strongly or somewhat?

Me: This is one of the eight questions above. The White House talked about Libya publicly. Are you asking me under what circumstances the U.S. should have imposed a no-fly zone? I can answer that. It’s in my first article here, “You say you want a revolution.” But if you must, I say no, so I approve of Obama since he didn’t do it.

3. Do you approve or disapprove of the way the U.S. Congress is doing its job? Do you approve/disapprove strongly or somewhat?

Again, Congress is not one thing, but a fairly complex operation. Something happened in Congress after 2008. The Republican Party, devastated by Obama’s big victory, got disciplined, especially in the House, and proceeded to do everything in its power to make the government fail. Their program — if you can call it that — is a threat to the well being of the nation. To the extent that they’ve succeeded in affecting national policy, I don’t like it. But I think their successes are really limited, so Congress is doing OK.

4a. Who do you trust to do a better job handling the economy – (Obama) or (the Republicans in Congress)?

Me: To the extent that it can handled, Obama. The Republicans say a lot of irresponsible things, but in fact, they do very little.

4b. Who do you trust to do a better job handling the federal budget deficit – (Obama) or (the Republicans in Congress)?

Me: Same as 4a.

4c. (This question was not shown in the Washington Post’s account.)

4d. Who do you trust to do a better job handling protecting the rights of working people – (Obama) or (the Republicans in Congress)?

Me: Are you talking about hourly workers? Who are non-working people? What rights are you talking about? I guess this is really an economic question and so my answer is still 4a.

5. On another subject, regardless of whether or not the recession is over, in terms of your own personal experience, do you feel the economy has or has not begun to recover?

Me: I don’t know how you mean that I am to separate my “personal” experience from all of my experiences? Does what I read count? As for me, as an individual, I’m lucky. I have not lost my job, so I did not personally go into recession, nor do I have to get over it.

6. (IF ECONOMY HAS BEGUN TO RECOVER) Who do you think deserves most of the credit for that: (Obama), (the Republicans in Congress), both equally, or neither?

Me: I’ve answered that in 2a.

7. Who do you think is taking a stronger leadership role in the government in Washington these days, (Obama) or (the Republicans in Congress)?

Me: What do you mean by leadership? The White House and Congress do different things. If you mean winning political skirmishes, they have achieved a standoff. That may actually be a good thing.

At this point, I would have done anything to get off the phone. I can’t take it anymore.

The message of the latest Washington Post-ABC poll is just what I said in the beginning: politicians suck. What does this mean? People who answer polls always hate Congress and yet the re-election rate is phenomenally good for incumbents. This doesn’t add up.

Here is how the Washington Post puts it:

“Poll: Budget impasse cements public’s disapproval of Washington”

You are standing in cement!

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Written by theunbiasedeye

March 16, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Posted in Politics

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