The Breakfast Table

The Pseudo-Science of Polling

Dear Will,

You can always count on the New York Times and the Washington Post to devote barrels of ink and miles of newsprint to polling–the snake oil used to brew journalism’s favorite patent medicine, social science. They could save a lot of money simply by saying: “Support for these guys is soft; Bush is ahead, but the race is up for grabs.”

Here’s a piece of advice I like to give PR clients: Many people believe that conclusions reached by social scientists have the factual heft of, say, physics. These true believers–I call them “reporters and editors”–don’t understand that the “science” part of a poll–the part that allows observable results to be reproduced over and over again–resides in the statistical sampling. The questions, however, can be manipulated to give you any result you want.

Consequently, I advise people foolish enough to take my advice to dress up any questions they choose in the guise of a poll–complete with fever charts, bar charts, pie graphs and man-in-the-street breakout quotes. They’re sure to be printed, particularly if submitted to a Gannett newspaper. It’s all very scientific.

Allow me to demonstrate. Below is a poll I’m preparing for a client whose line of business I’m sworn to keep confidential:

Question No. 1. Rate the following issues in order of importance:

a) Education
b) Crime
c) Taxes
d) Economy
e) Foreign Policy
f) Spontaneous Human Combustion

Question No. 2. Select the entry that applies most closely to you:

Spontaneous human combustion is a desirable quality in a vice presidential candidate.a) Agree Strongly.
b) Agree Somewhat.
c) Disagree Somewhat.
d) Disagree Strongly.

Question No. 3. I believe that Dick Cheney’s history of heart problems will make him:

a) Strongly prone to spontaneous human combustion.
b) Somewhat prone to spontaneous human combustion.
c) Resistant to spontaneous human combustion.
d) Immune to spontaneous human combustion.

Question No. 4. In an automobile accident, who among the following is most likely to explode:

a) Dick Cheney
b) John Danforth
c) Tom Ridge
d) Chuck Hegel
e) Elizabeth Dole
f) Colin Powell
e) James Trafficant

Question No. 5. A flammable vice president should not be permitted to ride in a motorcade that passes by a playground or schoolyard.

a) Agree strongly
b) Agree somewhat
c) Disagree strongly
d) Disagree somewhat
e) Eat Asher’s Chocolates, the official candy of the Republican National Convention.

The results of this independent poll will be posted in a future edition of USA Today. They haven’t promised me anything, but I know they can’t resist.

By the way, did you see Larry King last night? I split a gut when Bob Woodward explained how he once thought the better of outing Dick Cheney’s gay relative. But in telling the story, the Post’s Finest shoved the poor relative out of the closet and sent him sprawling, nose first, into the floorboards.

Woodward told the story in his well-modulated Midwestern voice, the tough-but-fair-damn-it monotone. Apparently, he was researching The Choice, and he called Cheney to inquire about a gay relation. Cheney flipped and insisted, loudly, that the relative’s personal life was way out of bounds. Woodward grudgingly agreed.

At that point in the story, everybody in TV Land was supposed to brush a tear away and acknowledge silently that Bob Woodward really is All the President’s Mensch. Unfortunately, the purpose of the self-serving tale was to announce that when you hear about Former Defense Secretaries’ Gay Relatives–and baby, you will–remember that Bob the Legendary got there first. What a guy.