Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why the Strategic Vision Polling Scandal Sucks (And Why it Might be Important)

In case you missed it, there was a survey of Oklahoma public high school students that got released the other week, one of those our-kids-are-so-dumb-they-think-coleslaw-is-a-country findings that gets everyone worked up once a year or so. These students got asked 10 basic questions about the US government, and none of them could answer even eight of them correctly. Three out of four students didn't know who the first President was. Some news outlets and blogs picked up the story and then it got dropped because American high schoolers being dumb is not exactly news.

Here's the problem with that survey: those numbers that seem surprisingly plausible might very well have been made up entirely. Or so says political statistician Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com, who published several posts suggesting that Strategic Vision, the polling and advertising company that conducting the survey, tends to get results that--to put it delicately--do not necessarily resemble numbers you would get if you actually conducted random surveys of people, and rather resemble the numbers you would get if you made some data up.

Silver uses some math that I won't get into here (math sucks, right?), but one red flag is easy to understand, even if you went to Oklahoma public high school: out of 1,000 students (supposedly) tested, not even one got eight questions right. The more you think about it, the less sense it makes. Students as a whole might be dumb, but there wasn't a single civics nerd in the whole bunch? If that's a truly random sample of students, that's pretty weird.

It's pretty much impossible to prove that numbers aren't random, but if Silver's suspicions are correct, this could be one of the more important scandals of the year, something that could actually matter in the long run, unlike all those stories about politicians sticking their man-parts in odd places. If surveys and polls are being fudged or falsified, we're one step closer to living in a 1984-esque nightmare where there is no such things as facts. Think that's an exaggeration?

Look at how much we already distrust media sources. Thirty years ago, Americans mostly trusted the news. Liberals and Conservatives may have gotten commentary from different places, but they got news stories from sources considered "objective." The New York Times was really the "paper of record" and Walter Cronkite was "the most trusted man in America."

Now? Conservatives watch Fox News, Liberals watch MSNBC, and each side distrusts and attacks the other's media. CNN and the Times are slammed for the stories they don't run and the bias that's inherent in the stories they do carry. If the Watergate scandal broke today, a large portion of the country would be convinced it was a liberal media plot to bring down the unfairly persecuted Dick Nixon. The only entities that are (mostly) regarded as unbiased are the companies that conduct public opinion polls.

Some pollsters do lean left or right, of course, meaning they are generally hired by one side or the other, but their results are regarded as facts. During election season, reporters of all affiliations treat polling numbers like sports scores, and no matter how many people yell at each other on cable-news splitscreens, you'll almost never hear a talking head say, "I think those poll numbers are a lie." Pollsters are more trusted than any pundit, because the poll numbers are what many pundits use to make their arguments. Although we don't think much about polling agencies, I think many Americans trust pollsters more than the government, the church, the news, or their teenaged children.

When we discuss polling numbers being added up so that 2+2=5, we're discussing the removal of the last foundation of objective political journalism. What if both parties created their own polls, willfully falsified the numbers, and released a mix of inaccurate and accurate information--or what if that's what the public thought they did? Liberals and Conservatives would have no way to even begin discussing current events with each other, and the talking heads would have one more thing to yell at each other about, and what once was "news" will become "opinion."

Strategic Vision, for its part, has promised to release its "crosstabs," which will break down the demographics of the (possibly conducted) polls, but it's unclear how that's going to disprove Silver's suspicions. They've also threatened to sue him, a threat which he doesn't seem to mind. The print media, meanwhile, hasn't picked up the story at all, probably because so far as we know, no one at Strategic Vision is having sex with someone they shouldn't have.

But the dead tree guys have reason to stay away from this story. It's not like an entity that the public implicitly trusts has potentially lied to a whole bunch of people, including the supposedly-savvy media, right? Right? Because that would really be a scandal.

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