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Monday, March 12, 2012

THE VAGARIES OF POLLING DATA

A new poll, released today, reveals that half of the Republican voters in Mississippi and Alabama think Obama is a Muslim, and 60% reject the theory of evolution.  Since I have almost no hair left, tearing my hair out is not an option.  Instead, I find myself harking back to an old journal article, published more than half a century ago, by the late David Riesman.  Riesman, as my younger readers may not know, was a prominent sociologist who was trained as a lawyer at Harvard, clerked for Brandeis on the Supreme Court, and after teaching law at Buffalo, joined the Harvard faculty in the Social Relations Department during the time that I was an Instructor there [i.e., in the late '50s.].  Riesman was best known for his book, The Lonely Crowd, in which, among other things, he coined the personality category terms "inner directed," "tradition directed," and "other directed."

The article in question was Riesman's attempt to explain the wide and very rapid swings in the views expressed by subjects in the then rather new genre of opinion polling.  He was puzzled by the fact that, for example, 70% of Americans might express the opinion one week that Red China should be admitted to the UN, and 65%  would express the contrary opinion a week later.  How could people change their minds so dramatically, so quickly?

Riesman suggested that what was at work was not opinion change but something more akin to status anxiety.  When a pollster came to the door [this was before telephone calling was the sole method of polling], nicely dressed, wearing a coat and tie, and carrying an official looking clipboard, the person answering the door probably felt somewhat intimidated, and was embarrassed to confess that he or she had no opinion at all about something that was apparently important to this obviously socially upscale person.  Rather than admit to having no opinion, the person would more than likely seize on whatever he or she had heard on the radio or seen on the telly that day, and offer as a settled opinion what was actually anything but.

Surely something akin to this is going on here.  Do the people being polled have a considered opinion about the theory of evolution?  Do they have any idea at all what the theory of evolution asserts?  Of course not.  What they do know is that smart-ass stuck-up Northern irreligious liberals "believe in": evolution, so they don't.  Do they actually know what it is to "be a Muslim?"  Probably not.  But they know that Muslims are not like us, and Obama is clearly not like us, so called upon to offer an opinion, they say Obama is a Muslim.

The thing that drives me wild about all of this is that these people use IPhones and IPads, are on FaceBook, get flu shots, opt for radiation therapy when they get cancer, and do all the other things that presuppose the truth of the science that they mindlessly reject.  It is a measure of my desperation and mean-spiritedness that I daydream about denying them treatment unless they sign a statement asserting that they accept the science on which the treatment is based.

It is going to be a long Spring, Summer, and Fall.

2 comments:

Bjorn said...

I took the liberty of quoting your second-to-last paragraph on my website (wrt. iPhones and cognitive dissonance). Already several people whose opinion I respect have concurred with me that it is eminently quotable.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

nifty!