Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Why Polls Don’t Matter

Jonah Goldberg makes a valuable point in this essay about why ignorance in the populace eliminates any reason to take polls seriously. He starts by going over some recent surveys on what Americans don’t know:

HUGE NUMBERS of Americans don’t know jack about their government or politics. According to a Pew Research Center survey released last week, 31 percent of Americans don’t know who the vice president is, fewer than half are aware that Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, a mere 29 percent can identify “Scooter” Libby as the convicted former chief of staff of the vice president, and only 15 percent can name Harry Reid when asked who is the Senate majority leader.


Such results are hardly new. The average American is abysmally ignorant on even the most basic facts. And as Goldberg points out, this fact renders meaningless poll results on other issues:

And yet, last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’ firing of eight U.S. attorneys was “politically motivated.”

So, we are supposed to believe that two-thirds of Americans have studied the details of the U.S. attorney firings and come to an informed conclusion that they were politically motivated — even when Senate Democrats agree that there is no actual evidence that Gonzales did anything improper. Are these the same people who couldn’t pick Pelosi out of a lineup? Or the 85 percent who couldn’t name the Senate majority leader? Are we to imagine that the 31 percent of the electorate who still — after seven years of headlines and demonization — can’t identify the vice president of the United States nonetheless have a studied opinion on the firing of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias?

He’s not defending Gonzales here; in fact, he thinks Gonzales should be fired. But the point he’s making is a valid one:

No, this is a column about how confused and at times idiotic the United States is about polls, public opinion and, well, democracy itself. We all love to tout the glories of democracy and denounce politicians who just follow the polls. Well, guess which politicians follow the polls? The popular ones, that’s who. And guess why: Because the popular ones get elected. Bucking public opinion is the quickest way for a politician to expedite his or her transition to the private sector.

More to the point, Americans — God bless ‘em — are often quite ignorant about the stuff politicians and pundits think matters most. They may know piles about their own professions, hobbies and personal interests, but when it comes to basic civics, they get their clocks cleaned on Fox’s “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?”

Though examples are depressingly unnecessary, here are two of my favorites over the years. In 1987, 45 percent of adult respondents to one survey answered that the phrase “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” was in the Constitution (in fact, it’s a quote from Karl Marx). Then, in 1991, an American Bar Association study reported that a third of Americans did not know what the Bill of Rights was.

That’s why I always laugh when a politician talks about the “wisdom of the people” and laugh even harder when they strike the pseudo-populist post by ranting about “elites” ignoring “the will of the people.” As a group, “the people” are idiots – not only ignorant about practically everything but proud of their ignorance. We have popular memes and catchphrases to express our anti-intellectual nonsense, phrases like “sure he may be ‘booksmart’ but he has no common sense.”

They invoke such meaningless drivel in order to soothe themselves and elevate their ignorance above another’s knowledge. Far too many Americans have a serious misunderstanding of the principle of equality. All people are equal under the law, but that doesn’t mean all people are equally smart or talented or have equal aptitude for various tasks. And I know this is going to come as a shock, but no, you have not proven all of the world’s biologists wrong because you read creationist pamphlet and think you understand evolution now.

Comments

  1. #1 daenku32
    April 29, 2007

    I concede his point, but I do have to attack the essay regardless, because I see the essay being about more than a general statement about public opinion.

    I just find it specious than a writer that has permanent spot on NR, which more often than not uses poll numbers on political issues, is talking against following the polls. That Jonah is writing this article NOW, rather than when Congress was still ran by Republicans, is suspicious.

    While his point has universal timeless truths to it, this article is nothing more than an attempt to get politically active people (the people who actually read this article) to ignore the strong public demand to pull out of Iraq. Why didn’t Goldberg write this column when Dover trial was going on, or when Kansas science standards were debated in the national media? Just wait until the there is a right-wing bill with “strong public support”, and Jonah will suddenly praise the need for politicians to follow the will of the American people.

  2. #2 mollishka
    April 29, 2007

    I was going to make a quip about how, according to your title, these polls don’t matter either, but I actually find myself agreeing with the points you bring up at the end. It’s sad that a culture of ignorance winds up degrading the political process, but it’s just one more thing that would be fixed by a strong cultural support of knowledge, inquiry, and critical thinking.

  3. #3 coturnix
    April 29, 2007

    Yup, taht is why popular lyrics go like this:

    I’m just a common man drive a common van
    My dog aint got no pedigree
    If I have my say, gonna stay that way
    Cause high-browed people lose their sanity
    And a common man is what I’ll be

  4. #4 drb
    April 29, 2007

    This seems a bit of a non sequiter to me – just because the populace as a whole is abysmally ignorant about their own government and the nuances of ongoing news stories and scandals, it does not necessarily follow that one should ignore political polls. People will vote their misconceptions and prejudices, and of course that is what matters to party leaders. The entire system of pandering political discourse is a depressing testament to the encouragement of simplistic thinking and the suppression of rational assessment. True believers like Goldberg are being disingenuous when they complain about issues like the Justice Department scandal, just because public opinion doesn’t seem to be breaking their way.

  5. #5 drb
    April 29, 2007

    Oh, and by the way, Goldberg’s offhand statement quoted above, to the effect that Senate Democrats concede there is “…no evidence that Gonzalez actually did anything wrong…”, is a comical rebuttal to his later claim that this column had nothing to do with the scandal per se. Really, Mr. Goldberg? How about the little issue of the AG making false statements to Congress during his previous testimony? If he has evidence that all the Senate Democrats have made such a stupefying concession, I’d love to see it.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    April 29, 2007

    Goldberg may well be the biggest hypocrite in the history of the universe, but what he said here is still valid. Given the staggering ignorance and apathy shown by the American public, why should we assign any truth value at all to their beliefs on an issue like this? Now, the poll cited on Gonzales happens to coincide with reality, in my view; those attorneys likely were fired for political reasons. But how many of those polled has any actual basis for their opinion? Likely very few. And that is the point of my post, quite apart from whether Goldberg is a hypocrite or right about anything else.

  7. #7 Michael E
    April 29, 2007

    And since voting is just a form of polling paid for and monitored by the government, then why on earth should we bother believing the results of elections?

    If we take this essay as truth, then it pretty much drives a stake into the heart of the vampire known as democracy.

    Seriously. If the American public are just a bunch of ignorant louts, why should we-who-think-more-clearly bother with letting them run our lives? We should we put up with elections that are run by political handlers to goad the unkowning public into voting for their most emotional issues?

    If this essay is true, then all “democracy” means is “rule of the stupid.”

  8. #8 steve s
    April 29, 2007

    There’s a related issue I like to think about. How does one go about the necessary task of believing things without direct evidence? I believe that HIV causes AIDS, that 90377 Sedna exists, millions of butterflies are right now in South America, and very many other things I’ve never directly verified.

  9. #9 Jackson
    April 29, 2007

    Poor title for the post. Polls of the general public shouldn’t be used for establishing a factual claim, and I rarely see them used that way. Finding out what the public thinks about an issue, on the other hand, can be useful.

  10. #10 Lettuce
    April 29, 2007

    So, we are supposed to believe that two-thirds of Americans have studied the details of the U.S. attorney firings and come to an informed conclusion

    How does this follow? It hardly matters how or why people came to the conclusions they come to if they’ve come to those conclusions.

    I don’t remember Jonah pushing this line after the last Presidential election., “doesn’t matter, people didn’t know what they were doing, so Bush doesn’t have a mandate.”

    And while he didn’t have a mandate, except from his constituency in the press, it didn’t change reality.

    None f this matters, if people have, in fact, come to a conclusion. In fact, on Jonah’s terms it hardly matters why they reached their conclusions.

    What matters is that they have, and how solidly they will stick with those conclusions.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    April 29, 2007

    Yes, a poorly worded title to be sure. Polls obviously matter in the world of practical politics. It is their relation to the truth that I am arguing is virtually non-existent. And yes, democracy largely does mean rule by the stupid. Welcome to reality.

  12. #12 Michael E
    April 29, 2007

    If democracy is rule by the stupid, why do we intelligent folks continue to put up with it? Hasn’t anyone ever read “The Marching Morons”?

    Maybe we’re not so intelligent after all and just think so in relation to the average voter?

  13. #13 Jeff Chamberlain
    April 29, 2007

    Who argues that polls are related to the truth values of their subject-matters (as differentiated from a means to discern what the poll-ees think about the subject-matters)?

  14. #14 Tyler DiPietro
    April 29, 2007

    It’s a tired point, but it certainly comes into play here. While democracy is indeed “rule by the stupid”, much of our legal system is built around this realization. The proverbial “checks and balances” our republic is built on are there partially because excessive direct democracy will inevitably lead to a shitload of stupid governance (and partially because unmitigated power by an branch of government would inevitably lead to similarly disasterous consequences).

  15. #15 Ed Brayton
    April 29, 2007

    Michael E wrote:

    If democracy is rule by the stupid, why do we intelligent folks continue to put up with it?

    Perhaps because the founding fathers were smart enough to set up enough roadblocks to genuine democracy to protect our liberty and prevent the worst excesses of democracy, and because no other system is in any way compatible with liberty.

  16. #16 daenku32
    April 29, 2007

    What if we invent a new system? With advances in the scientific method, I think we could certainly adopt much of it into the new system.

  17. #17 Michael E
    April 29, 2007

    I do not recall a time in my living history (since 1962) when liberty was at such a low ebb. Demoocrats may pass laws protecting the inherent rights of gays and “minorities” to be treated no worse than the rest of us, but are no more likely to actually read the Constitution than are Republicans.

    I have some questions that, in an actual forum, I would start in a new thread, but I’ll have to post them here and hope for the best:

    Which candidate who actually stands a chance of being elected has a history and a potential cabinet with a history of actually defending liberty (let alone promoting it)?

    When the Demcrats fall out of disfavor in the 2010 election cycle because they have raised taxes to cope with the amazing amount of national debt we have now and to restore what they consider to be social necessities, what prevents the Republicans from putting in a batch of neo-cons like the ones we have to deal with now?

    In other words: Why be anything other than pessimistic about the future of liberty in this American democracy?

  18. #18 Michael E
    April 29, 2007

    Should be, “…when the Democrats fall out of favor…”

  19. #19 beepbeepitsme
    April 29, 2007

    RE: “If democracy is rule by the stupid, why do we intelligent folks continue to put up with it?”

    The US isn’t a straight forward democracy anymore than Australia is. They each have political systems which allow for the populace to vote for a candidate. The US is a republic with democratic processes. Australia is defined as a federal parliamentary democracy. In neither instances is “one vote one value” a part of the election process. They are representative democracies where the vote of the individual is represented at a state or a federal level. These sorts of systems are not “majority rule.”

    I am not advocating “majority rule” by the way, just trying to express that there are various forms of democratic processes and that most of them do NOT involve majority rule.

  20. #20 SLC
    April 29, 2007

    Mr. Brayton may find the rant at the link by one of his fellow Michiganders of some interest re this thread.

    http://www.bordersstores.com/features/feature.jsp?file=wherehavealltheleadersgone

  21. #21 James
    April 30, 2007

    Its not just public interest that distorts poll results either. There is no price on poll repsonses, by which I mean that there are no direct consequences of stating one opinion over another. Given that there are no incentives to be honest, people will often say whatever sounds good, or what they thing the pollster wants to hear. I don’t know how important this effect will be in this case, but in other issues (particularly genetic modification and nuclear power) there is probably a significant bias.

    This also applies to elections. The odds of your vote counting are small that only political junkies are likely to take the effort to become properly informed. If anyone can think of a better system than constituinoal democracy, I’m all ears, otherwise its better than everything else.

    I’ll close with a comment from the Right Honourable Jim Bolger, former Prime Minister of New Zealand and ambassador to the United States: “Bugger the pollsters”

  22. #22 Lettuce
    April 30, 2007

    When the Demcrats fall out of disfavor in the 2010 election cycle because they have raised taxes to cope with the amazing amount of national debt we have now and to restore what they consider to be social necessities, what prevents the Republicans from putting in a batch of neo-cons like the ones we have to deal with now?

    Sadly, agree with them or not, it’s apparently fallen to the Democrats to become the nation’s designated drivers.

    They may be the world’s only party excoriated as libertines and profligate spenders taking on this roll.

    It sucks to be a country’s parents. It’s a thankless task, but somebody has to do it, and everyone else suitable to the task is unelectable (and by that I mean sewer socialists and libertarians.)

    What a different place this would be if national elections were contested between those groups, rather then the coalitions we have.

  23. #23 Troublesome Frog
    April 30, 2007

    I’ve often thought that it would be interesting if pollsters would gather a little bit of extra information on their subjects when they took polls. Sure, it’s interesting to know that 44% of the country thinks X is a good policy, but I’d be more interested in what percent of the country who can name the Vice President thinks X is a good policy. It would be of immense help to political strategists: They could easily decide whether to try to win votes by touting the details of their latest policies or by tricking people by waving the bloody shirt or jingling their keys.

  24. #24 Martin R
    April 30, 2007

    Allowing the huge number of people who read tabloids to vote is of course insane. But there is no better alternative.

  25. #25 Stephen Elliott
    April 30, 2007

    If the vast majority of the citizens in the USA are woefully ignorant then surely the problem is with the education system rather than polls.

    I don’t doubt any of the facts/figures posted, but I do have a problem with the suggested reaction to them. Ignore polls and you are no longer a democracy. Beter education is surely a better response.

  26. #26 Melissa
    April 30, 2007

    This author forgets one very important point. Although many Americans are not informed, they still vote. Polls do matter because people still vote. Also good sources of public opinion polls towards election time only interview people who say they will vote. By the way, good sources of public opinion polls are done by universities. University polling has no political ties. They also take great care in being truly randomized in their sample.

  27. #27 Ed Darrell
    April 30, 2007

    You guys need to get to the library today, and check out a copy of The Wisdom of Crowds. Sometimes wisdom is more important than smart.

  28. #28 llDayo
    April 30, 2007

    To play devil’s advocate on behalf of the people polled, I may not have gotten some of those names. It’s not that I don’t know who they are or not know their names, it’s just I have a crappy memory when it comes to such things. If I had been asked who the Senate Majority Leader is, Harry Reid might not have popped into my head, but my brain would be telling me I should know this. So, don’t just rely on polls period that involve asking people questions on facts they should probably know. There’s probably many others out there just like me so I believe these polls are most likely a little misleading.

  29. #29 Jason I.
    April 30, 2007

    Brings to mind a scene from Men in Black:

    Jay: Why the big secret? People are smart, they can handle it.
    Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals and you know it.

  30. #30 Lettuce
    April 30, 2007

    If the vast majority of the citizens in the USA are woefully ignorant then surely the problem is with the education system rather than polls.

    I don’t know that this follows at all. The fact that people choose not to be engaged isn’t the same as suggesting they are incapable of engagement or logic or understanding.

    Unless we want to task “the education system” with motivating people throughout their lives; and I’m not sure that’s reasonable or even good, I’m not sure how much “the education system” can do.

    People, at least as far as I can tell, are very capable of engagement and logically parsing things… They just seem to think this is boring and/or difficult and certainly not as much fun as acting like a boor in a tiity bar.

  31. #31 jufulu
    April 30, 2007

    Turning the conversation to another form of polling, referendums. As a Californian I am so sick of taking an issue directly to the people. I’ve taken up the manta, just vote no. Our elected form of government sucks, but referendums suck more.
    I truely liked Jason I’s comment, it seems so true.

  32. #32 Mark
    April 30, 2007

    Turning the conversation to another form of polling, referendums. As a Californian I am so sick of taking an issue directly to the people. I’ve taken up the manta, just vote no. Our elected form of government sucks, but referendums suck more.

    I live in Washington state, and I generally vote no on any referendum that is an attempt to legislate on some complex policy issue, even if it seems attractive policy-wise, simply because I’ve seen so many examples of the folly of making tax policy/health care policy/you name it by initiative.

  33. #33 Troublesome Frog
    April 30, 2007

    You guys need to get to the library today, and check out a copy of The Wisdom of Crowds. Sometimes wisdom is more important than smart.

    I tend to follow the crowd when the decision is about something intuitive, something that’s based on common experience, or something that’s based on popular culture. The moment we start talking about decisions where data may contradict common sense, I’d rather listen to the small percentage of people who know something about the topic. If you’re on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” you’ll probably want to “ask the audience” when the question is about who Brad Pitt is dating or how long to cook a roast. When the topic shifts to special relativity or monetary policy, it’s probably wise to go it alone.

  34. #34 Ted
    April 30, 2007

    But how many of those polled has any actual basis for their opinion? Likely very few.

    Everyone has an actual basis for their opinion. Just doesn’t comport to your basis for opinion formation, which I assume is independent logic based on some information you have access to.