Polls, Predictions, Soothsayers and a False Reality

Polls, predictions, soothsayers and a false reality

Ask a dozen people who they think are the most powerful families in the US today, and you’ll get a short list of answers. All of them will, almost certainly, be wrong.
The Bush family would probably be mentioned most often in response to your informal poll – after all, they can seat a President, an ex-President and a Governor at the table for Thanksgiving dinner. That’s a tough trifecta to beat.
The Clintons can do pretty well on holidays with a Senator and an ex-President to claim. The Kennedys also have an impressive collection of resumes at their family reunions, especially if Maria brings Arnold with her.
But no clan comes close to wielding direct power over the social fabric of American life as The Nielsen Families do, those carefully chosen anonymous few whose television viewing habits are electronically measured. The economic impact of television is in the hundreds of billions of dollars, yet the industry depends entirely on mysterious, secret sampling formulas applied by self-certified experts to determine where that enormous flow of money will go.
A wonderful scam, really, one that would make P. T. Barnum proud. Take a tiny sample of the general public, make an semi-educated guess about what’s being viewed on all of the televisions in the land, and then have everyone accept your results as Fact. There’s no downside, really, because nobody can ever prove you wrong. It’s even better than the fortune-telling con “Miss Cleo” used to get rich during her few weeks of fame.
Public opinion polls have morphed into the same soothsayer mode as the Nielsen ratings. Both rely on fewer and fewer samplings to make their projections; soon they'll both be using just the Smith family from Indiana to assess the national mood.
The pollsters at Gallup have convinced the nation that by phoning 767 or 1022 selected people to question, they can predict the political beliefs and potential votes of millions of people. Meanwhile, nobody in the television or advertising business questions the validity of Nielsen numbers despite the tiny fraction of viewers they actually sample.
Over at Gallup they admit to a margin of error of four or five percent, but even if they’re proven wrong by events, that doesn’t shake their faith. They simply refine their methods a bit and start a new poll. But no margin of error exists in the Nielsen world, where a one percent change in ratings will affect millions of advertising dollars.
All this educated guessing would just be good entertainment and the source for a few side bets, except that far too many people take the “results” seriously. We may be getting bad television because of flawed Nielsen sampling. What’s worse is that we may be electing poor representatives because of bad polling practices.
Polls have become a compelling force in politics; they can determine the outcome in a close election by trying to predict it. How often - be honest, now - have you voted for a candidate because all you knew about them was that they were ahead in the polls? Did you question the validity of those polls at the time?
No, you didn’t. Neither did a lot of other folks. They just absorbed the numbers and moved on, usually spreading disinformation as they went.
The faith-based pseudosciences of polling and ratings shape the political and social landscape of America more than ever. Invented as a way of reflecting reality, they’ve grown in influence to the point of creating reality. It may be time to do to them what the Republican party wants to do to our bloated federal government – shrink it down to a size small enough to drown in a bathtub.
That won’t happen in television because the industry needs numbers of some kind, any kind, to attract those advertising billions. It can happen in politics if we collectively choose to refuse to participate in polls and ignore the results when they are announced. Even better, we could all start voting the opposite of poll results until their credibility is completely destroyed.
We might not get a better government, but considering what we have now, there’s little to lose by trying.

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