Monday, November 01, 2004

Rotten information

Here in Denmark I am surrounded by enthusiasts for Actor Network Theory. They like to assert in one form or another that the social sciences create the world they purport to investigate. The idea is neither original nor necessarily insightful, but it seems most plausible now as opinion polls, which have a problematic relation to the process that they claim merely to observe, reach a crescendo on the day before the election.

Some 30 countries, including many here in Europe, still ban polls around election time. Several such bans have been overturned by courts (in the US, India, Philippines, among others, such bans have either been seen as an abridgement of free speech) or simply circumvented by the net. In France, for example, where there is a 7-day ban, the newspaper Liberation posted their poll results on the web site of a sister publication in Switzerland. Nevertheless, restrictions remain in the vain hope that, if information might be rotten or at least problematic, it is either wise or feasible to try to ban it. Italy has a 28-day ban and Luxumburg 30 days. The numbers seem particularly arbitrary. Britain has--it would, wouldn't it?--a generally observed gentleman's agreement among the press not to publish polls on election eve and day. British press would regard the actions of Liberation as particularly gallic and ungentlemanly--though I doubt such moral superiority would hold were they expected to hold the gentleman's agreement for more than a day or two.

WAPOR, the World Association for Public Opinion, in The Freedom to Publish Opinion Polls, a survey about surveys (another case of it would, wouldn't it), found out that 24% of its respondents were worried about "unprofessional" political polls around election time (presumably the cads doing those are not WAPOR members), while almost the same portion (23%) were worried about not so much the quality of the information, as the quality of the journalists reporting it. In the current election, this lethal combination has been nowhere more evident than in the case of Gallup's polls, which repeatedly gave the Republicans significant leads, before conforming to the norm just in time for the election. As The Leftcoaster, in another case to emphasize the value of the blogshpere, discovered, Gallup repeatedly oversampled to favour Republicans--something the rest of the press managed to overlook. Even without "push polling", it seems, statistical rottenness is something the press has trouble dealing with.

As the polls point to a statistical "dead heat" at the end of the political "marathon", to borrow the sporting cliches most commonly used, I am reminded that I was in Europe just after the last election. A Portuguese newspaper, commenting on the stand-off in Florida, noted that the trouble with Americans was they didn't play football (ie, soccer). Consequently, the article explained, they don't understand the value of a good tie. James Baker in particular didn't seem to care how long extra time dragged on. What he did care about was that he was the last man standing. I take this to be a consequence of the remarkable spoils system in American politics. With so much at stake, so much patronage to dole out, and only two parties, sharing is inconceivable. I asked a Danish politician recently how many government-appointed positions changed hands when a government fell. She said about 17. In England, the new prime minister moves into Downing Street the day after results are announced. Even were the winner to take "all" here, there simply isn't all that much to take.

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