Thursday, July 25, 2013

Too Much Sampling

Jose was a fool as everyone knows
obsessively checking the state of his toes;
to assist in assessing his digits down low,
he walked, barefooted, in the heat and the cold. 

Some months ago I was offered the opportunity to receive periodic e-mail reports from the Gallop polling company. “Periodic” turned out to be multiple times per day. Two or three times each day, Monday through Friday, I get to read the results of a survey of Americans, Afghans, Britons, or some subset of them; letting me know in which way – up or down – their opinion of some minor subject is moving; how it compares with their opinion on the same subject one week ago, one month ago, one year ago, or a decade ago.

The picture that emerges is one of a nation (or world) that is obsessed with self-examination, fascinated with the changing appearance of its toes – or other body parts. Gallup is not the only organization checking on the status of our opinions. Every major news agency has it own pollsters, or contracts with one, to gather information for them. The result too often is that they find that “we” have come to see ourselves in the light of “news” they have been feeding us over the previous days, months, or years. When hammered daily with reports of a failing economy it is no surprise that “Americans are less confident in the strength of the economy than they were one year ago.” When treated to snippets showing a smiling President, speaking to cheering, affirming crowds it is predictable that “Americans have a more positive view of the President than they did six months ago.”

It is important to occasionally assess the health of one’s toes. Toes are an invaluable aid to walking, helping to keep us well balanced. But there is no need to walk through the world barefooted, exposing those delicate digits to the hazards of the road. And besides, such constant concern can turn pathological; soon we are seeing problems that don’t exist or that at the very most are insignificant, easily cured by wearing shoes.

There was a time when opinion polling served a good purpose, assessing the mood of the nation annually, between elections, or when some significant event had occurred or was about to occur. Today, the weekly survey of public “persuasion” (what is being surveyed is “opinions” implanted in the public mind by the 24/7 media) does little more than show the mindlessness of a population that allows its opinions to be imposed upon it by the persistent voices of the Fox News, or MSNBC, or New York Times, or Washington Post “opinion makers.” It is time that we put on our shoes and get to work fixing the problems we see around us. There will be time enough at the end of a day of hard work to examine the state of our toes.

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