The growing plethora of polls is becoming a menace.
What is being presented as “scientific polling”, or in some instances begging off an obvious limited sample by calling it “nonscientific”, is patently ridiculous. The essence of science is a controlled experiment.
Analyzing the public mind is an attempt to scrutinize a vast body of personal opinions out there, obviously held, often only temporarily, by a very wide assortment of individuals about whose thinking processes we ultimately can know very little.
Yet polls are increasingly being used as an instrument for public decision-making and action or, indeed, for running the activities of government..
Polling is the perfect example of the widespread current belief that statistical analysis – which the digital revolution has made possible in infinitely greater quantity and in vastly quicker – is the ultimate measure of issues. Yes, the noted philosopher Hegel says “quantity changes lead to quality changes”. But simply toting up the numbers supporting an issue or an individual – when even the phraseology of the question can easily determine the response – is a road to disaster.
First, the polls are often inaccurate on their face. How often recently have they not only been wrong measuring a forthcoming election but disastrously so? Eleven separate polling organizations not only totally incorrectly called the May elections in Britain. Not only did they fail by qualified amounts, but with a total inability to predict a dramatic outcome. Instead we got the unanticipated victory of David Cameron’s Conservatives with an absolute majority instead of widespread predictions of another “hung Parliament” forcing a coalition. .
The current Republican presidential campaign debates are a perfect example of misuse of polls vitiating ordinary common sense. They are an example of how polls are destroying or blocking more adequate solutions to life’s problems. The whole purpose of the contest among a dozen or so candidates for the Republican nomination is to examine individuals putting themselves forward who may or may not have been widely known previously in public life, and how their attitudes toward problems might contribute to the presidency were they nominated and elected.
In the end, in a very arbitrary manner, polls are being used to decide who are the frontrunners and therefore the more likely candidates for the nomination. But the very essence of having a large number of candidates for the nomination is to choose “hidden” abilities not yet recognized but desirable, or to discover the inadequacies of the more popular figures.
The comparisons sometimes made in the media of the current debates to the Lincoln-Douglas debates that preceded Abraham Lincoln’s election and the tragic events of the Civil War are ludicrous. The essence of those debates was a confrontation between two men on the issues and a vetting of their personalities.
The sorry spectacle of the MSNBC-sponsored debate demonstrated the inadequacies of the current program to join the issues and pick a candidate. The Fox Business news debate just concluded was better, but still left much to be desired.
It should not be the media’s role to stage and thereby control the debates.
Rather, some method ought to be found to put the individuals seeking the office into an arena where they and their audiences define the issues before the country and their differences about them. Perhaps a process of one on one with a staggering pyramid of encounters chosen by some sort of vote could be found.
But letting the media arrange the encounters for their maximum benefit – ratings and advertising revenue – and deciding who should participate on the basis of averaging polls with all their inadequacies is not the way to go.
Choosing the president of the United States is too important an issue to be left in the hands of this kind of petty manipulation.