It begs the question, just how accurate are these polls? My left brained rational friends assure me that through a complex system of formulations and calculus, polls become amazingly accurate barometers of public opinion. Just one thing: polls feature the opinions of almost every variety of citizens, with one glaring exception-people who tend not to be home in the evenings. Pollster can only call between certain hours (typically between 5-9 p.m., Mon-Thurs.). There is also a growing segment of our society that flatly refuses to respond to telephone polls. For those who do respond, there is really no guarantee that they will actually vote. Therein lies the rub: polls are, at bottom, based on odds and projections. Or, as Economist A. Marshall put it, "Statistics are [merely] the straw out of which...all economists have to make the bricks."
An example: until a recent Supreme Court ruling, the Census Bureau had always counted the U.S. population by mailing questionnaires. Despite their best efforts, the bureau missed some three or four MILLION people in the 1990 census. Not to worry. In the future, the census bureau will account for such oversights by inventing people. I believe the technical term for inventing people is "limited statistical sampling," or using sample groups to project larger trends. These projections would then be the basis for, among other things, distributing $180 billion in federal funds for minorities and the needy. In other words, the pollsters
project out these millions of made up people and we reincorporate the numbers as reality. It's virtual democracy.
So, what is the lesson in all this? Mark Twain summed it up succinctly: "Statistics are like ladies of the night. Once you get them down you can do anything with them." I ran that quote by several top notch demographic experts and they can't completely rule out its veracity. But given the public clamor for public polls and the purpose they serve in giving order to our surroundings, they are likely here to stay.
Meanwhile, our representative democracy becomes increasingly less so.
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