February 4, 2008

Taking No Thought

As I lay in bed this morning listening to the customary newscast from NPR, designed both to awaken me and render me aware of the doings in this world of ours, I was greeted by two items of interest: (1) the continued chorus of pollsters opining on what the results of tomorrow’s primary elections will be; and (2) the retrospective suggestions that the Patriots might have allowed their unbroken streak of wins to have rendered them complacent in the face of the Giants.

Clearly we are dealing here with various species of false prophecy. That anyone can take pollsters very seriously after their recent and notorious failures to take the pulse of the nation (or at least of Iowa) never ceases to amaze me. And yet we are right back listening to them as they pontificate on the probabilities. In the case of the Patriots, we have some good evidence of the detrimental effects that expectations can produce.

What is this urge to know what is to be before it is? There seems to be a separation between expectation and reality, and an urge to turn the one into the other. I mean, what good are exit polls? Surely the actual vote will be revealed in a few hours, and the results will be fully known; so why this continued staring through a glass darkly when we can be assured that the electoral eschaton (or at least telos) is not at some remote remove, but it will have arrived by 11 p.m. — unless delayed by hanging chads or counts too close to call?

I also reflected on the extent to which polls and early primaries may have a detrimental effect on the electoral process as a whole; as people move from second guessing or merely guessing, or using their votes — not to vote for the person they actually wish to see elected — but for the person that the pollsters tell them seems to be the most electable, in a posited contest the actual opposite candidate of which has not yet even been chosen.

I am reminded of a story from a few years back of an episcopal election in which the candidate won on the first ballot by an overwhelming majority — much to the amazement of people who, it is said, voted for the candidate not because they thought this was the best person to be bishop, but because the candidate was a very nice person whom people liked and towards whom they wanted to express their fondness.

The fact is, your vote is your vote. None of us has control over anyone else, and using one’s vote as an imagined means to manipulate the outcome of an election or express some secondary opinion about the state of things — beyond the force of one’s own preference — can, quite simply, backfire. The law of unintended consequences is binding on us all.

In any case, this was all running through my mind as I sat down to say the morning office. And what to my wandering mind should appear, in the first verse of the first lesson (Proverbs 27:1)? “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” That seems to say it all, for patriots and Patriots alike. So my word to athletes and voters is: do your best and vote for the person you actually want to see in office; do not allow your expectations or desires to cloud your performance or your judgment.

This has been an unpaid political announcement. And I approve of it.

Tobias Haller BSG


Anonymous said...


I think you're comparison isn't valid. The Patriots got complacent BEFORE the game, and it affect how they played. The polls are marking progress DURING THE GAME. They are more analogous to the announcers and broadcast commenters than anything else. Of course, as the old sage Yogi Berra put it, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." That old sage Jesus of Nazareth put it differently, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."

Bunker Hill
Spearfish, SD

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Well Bunker Hill (and with a name like that you must be a patriot on both counts!) I really didn't mean it as a comparison -- just two instances of disregarding another of the great Yogi Berra's maxims: "It ain't over till it's over." Whether before or during the action, second guessing seems to be a mistake.

I didn't watch the SB by the way, but I understand the Patriots were doing quite well up until the last part of the last quarter... perhaps that is when the complacency really set in!

And, of course, Jesus does have the final word!


Malcolm+ said...

I didn't watch the "Super" Bowl. What with four downs instead of the proper three and that pathetic "fair catch" rule, NFL football is hardly a game worth watching. ;-p

In my secular life, I have the occasion, from time to time, to analyze polls.

There are essentially two problems with the coverage of political polling.

1. People - including most reporters - know two-thirds of four fifths of bugger all about polling.

A poll tells you what it tells you. It doesn't tell you what it doesn't tell you. And it isn't always clear what it does and doesn't tell you.

Assuming that a legitimate pollster is using some appropriate methodology to produce a truly random sample, then it is reasonable to assume that, 95% of the time, the poll is accurate within the margin of error.

Now, most people haven't got a clue about margins of error. If a poll shows Obama at 48% with a 5% margin of error, that means his support could be anywhere from 43% to 53%. So, if Clinton has 51%, she isn't really leading so much as she's statistically tied.

Little fluctuations between polls are usually meaningless, unless they are beyond the margin of error.

And finally, you cannot legitimately compare polls from different companies. Each polling company has its own methodolgy, and those differences in methodology (sample selection, question composition, question order) can all affect the numbers such that one company may consistently show Obama ahead of Clinton while another company may just as consistently show Clinton ahead of Obama.

2. Media poll analysis is one of the most effective ways of shifting the conversation away from issues and to the "horse race." In this regard, they are simply destructive to the democratic process.

There is at least one jurisdiction in Canada which bans the publication of opinion polls during an election.

Of course, in our system, the election begins with the issuance of a writ and ends with the return of the writ after polling day. In no Canadian jurisdiction does that period last more than 6-8 weeks.

In your neverendum referendum process, it might be harder to do. But perhaps a ban from January 1 until after the conventions and then again from Labour Day until the Wednesday after the First Tuesday following the First Monday in November.

Country Parson said...

Well, I've learned a lot about polls from all this and am still trying to figure out how much two thirds of four fifths is, but it sounds like an awful lot of vodka to me. The true lesson here is that one should say the Morning Office before turning on the radio, or anything else.

Malcolm+ said...

Country Parson: "still trying to figure out how much two thirds of four fifths is, but it sounds like an awful lot of vodka to me."

This poor Canadian almost missed that joke. Up here, what you call a fifth, we call a mickey.

June Butler said...

Tobias, just so you'll know. I voted for you because I think you are a very nice person.

I have come to the conclusion that the vast majority of prognosticators in the media don't know any more than I do. They just get paid for not knowing.