Technopoly’s Reverence for Statistics and Polls

neilpostman

From Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 1993); Chapter 8, “Invisible Technologies.” Apropros of the sustained effort of fraudulent wish-projection by “the polling industry” (excepting Kellyanne Conway), i.e., the reason why President-elect Donald Trump’s victory took us all very much by surprise.

starting in medias res…

Technopoly…needs to believe that science is an entirely objective enterprise. Lacking a lucid set of ethics and having rejected tradition, Technopoly searches for a source of authority and finds it in the idea of statistical objectivity.

 

This quest is especially evident not only in our efforts to determine precisely how smart people are but also in our attempts to find out precisely how smart groups of people are. Aside from the fact that the procedures used do not and cannot give such an answer, one must ask, Of what earthly use is it to declare that one group of people is smarter than another? Suppose it is shown that according to objective measures Asians have more “intelligence” than Caucasians, or that Caucasians have more than African-Americans. Then what? Of what use is this information to, say, a teacher or an employer? Is the teacher or employer to assume that a particular Asian is smarter than a particular African-American? Or even that six Asians are smarter than six African-Americans? Obviously not. And yet who knows? We must keep in mind the story of the statistician who drowned while trying to wade across a river with an average depth of four feet. That is to say, in a culture that reveres statistics, we can never be sure what sort of nonsense will lodge in people’s heads.

 

The only plausible answer to the question why we use statistics for such measurements is that it is done for sociopolitical reasons whose essential malignancy is disguised by the cover of “scientific inquiry.” If we believe that blacks are dumber than whites, and that this is not merely our opinion but is confirmed by objective measures, then we can believe we have an irreproachable authority for making decisions about the allocation of resources. This is how, in Technopoly, science is used to make democracy “rational.”

 

Polling is still another way. Just as statistics has spawned a huge testing industry, it has done the same for the polling of “public opinion.” One may concede, at the start, that there are some uses of polling that may be said to be reliable, especially if the case involves a greatly restricted question such as, Do you plan to vote for X or Y? But to say a procedure is reliable is not to say it is useful. The question is as yet undecided whether knowledge of voter trends during a political campaign enriches or demeans the electoral process. But when polls are used to guide public policy, we have a different sort of issue altogether.

 

I have been in the presence of a group of United States congressmen who were gathered to discuss, over a period of two days, what might be done to make the future of America more survivable and, if possible, more humane. Ten consultants were called upon to offer perspectives and advice. Eight of them were pollsters. They spoke of the “trends” their polling uncovered; for example, that people were no longer interested in the women’s movement, did not regard environmental issues as of paramount importance, did not think the “drug problem” was getting worse, and so on. It was apparent, at once, that these polling results would become the basis of how the congressmen thought the future should be managed. The ideas the congressmen had (all men, by the way) receded to the background. Their own perceptions, instincts, insights, and experience paled into irrelevance. Confronted by “social scientists,” they were inclined to do what the “trends” suggested would satisfy the populace.

 

It is not unreasonable to argue that the polling of public opinion puts democracy on a sound and scientific footing. If our political leaders are supposed to represent us, they must have some information about what we “believe.” In principle, there is no problem here. The problems lie elsewhere, and there are at least four of them.

 

The first has to do with the forms of the questions that are put to the public. I refer the reader to the matter of whether it is proper to smoke and pray at the same time. Or, to take a more realistic example: If we ask people whether they think it acceptable for the environment to continue to be polluted, we are likely to come up with answers quite different from those generated by the question, Do you think the protection of the environment is of paramount importance? Or, Do you think safety in the streets is more important than environmental protection? The public’s “opinion” on almost any issue will be a function of the question asked. (I might point out that in the seminar held by the congressmen, not one asked a question about the questions. They were interested in results, not in how these were obtained, and it did not seem to occur to them that the results and how they are obtained are inseparable.)

 

Typically, pollsters ask questions that will elicit yes or no answers. Is it necessary to point out that such answers do not give a robust meaning to the phrase “public opinion”? Were you, for example, to answer “No” to the question “Do you think the drug problem can be reduced by government programs?” one would hardly know much of interest or value about your opinion. But allowing you to speak or write at length on the matter would, of course, rule out using statistics. The point is that the use of statistics in polling changes the meaning of “public opinion” as dramatically as television changes the meaning of “political debate.” In the American Technopoly, public opinion is a yes or no answer to an unexamined question.

 

Second, the technique of polling promotes the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted by the pollster’s questions. But there is an alternative point of view, of which we might say, it is what Jefferson had in mind. An opinion is not a momentary thing but a process of thinking, shaped by the continuous acquisition of knowledge and the activity of questioning, discussion, and debate. A question may “invite” an opinion, but it also may modify and recast it; we might better say that people do not exactly “have” opinions but are, rather, involved in “opinioning.” That an opinion is conceived of as a measurable thing falsifies the process by which people, in fact, do their opinioning; and how people do their opinioning goes to the heart of the meaning of a democratic society. Polling tells us nothing about this, and tends to hide the process from our view.

 

Which leads to the third point. Generally, polling ignores what people know about the subjects they are queried on. In a culture that is not obsessed with measuring and ranking things, this omission would probably be regarded as bizarre. But let us imagine what we would think of opinion polls if the questions came in pairs, indicating what people “believe” and what they “know” about the subject. If I may make up some figures, let us suppose we read the following: “The latest poll indicates that 72 percent of the American public believes we should withdraw economic aid from Nicaragua. Of those who expressed this opinion, 28 percent thought Nicaragua was in central Asia, 18 percent thought it was an island near New Zealand, and 27.4 percent believed that ‘Africans should help themselves,’ obviously confusing Nicaragua with Nigeria. Moreover, of those polled, 61.8 percent did not know that we give economic aid to Nicaragua, and 23 percent did not know what ‘economic aid’ means.” Were pollsters inclined to provide such information, the prestige and power of polling would be considerably reduced. Perhaps even congressmen, confronted by massive ignorance, would invest their own understandings with greater trust.

 

The fourth problem with polling is that it shifts the locus of responsibility between political leaders and their constituents. It is true enough that congressmen are supposed to represent the interests of their constituents. But it is also true that congressmen are expected to use their own judgment about what is in the public’s best interests. For this, they must consult their own experience and knowledge. Before the ascendance of polling, political leaders, though never indifferent to the opinions of their constituents, were largely judged on their capacity to make decisions based on such wisdom as they possessed; that is, political leaders were responsible for the decisions they made. With the refinement and extension of the polling process, they are under increasing pressure to forgo deciding anything for themselves and to defer to the opinions of the voters, no matter how ill-informed and shortsighted those opinions might be.

 

We can see this process of responsibility-shift even more clearly in the case of the statistically based ratings of television shows. The definition of a “good” television show has become purely and simply a matter of its having high ratings. A “bad” show has low ratings. The responsibility of a television writer, therefore, begins and ends with his or her ability to create a show that many millions of viewers will watch. The writer, in a word, is entirely responsible to the audience. There is no need for the writer to consult tradition, aesthetic standards, thematic plausibility, refinements of taste, or even plain comprehensibility. The iron rule of public opinion is all that matters. Television executives are fond of claiming that their medium is the most democratic institution in America: a plebiscite is held every week to determine which programs will survive. This claim is given added weight by a second claim: creative artists have never been indifferent to the preferences and opinions of their audiences. Writers, for example, write for people, for their approbation and understanding. But writers also write for themselves and because they have something they want to say, not always because readers have something they want to hear. By giving constant deference to public preferences, polling changes the motivation of writers; their entire effort is to increase “the numbers.” Popular literature now depends more than ever on the wishes of the audience, not the creativity of the artist.

 

Before leaving the subject of the technology of statistics, I must call attention to the fact that statistics creates an enormous amount of completely useless information, which compounds the always difficult task of locating that which is useful to a culture. This is more than a case of “information-overload.” It is a matter of “information-trivia,” which has the effect of placing all information on an equal level. No one has expressed this misuse of a technology better than the New Yorker magazine cartoonist Mankoff. Showing an attentive man watching television news, Mankoff has the newscaster saying, “A preliminary census report indicates that for the first time in our nation’s history female anthropologists outnumber male professional golfers.” When statistics and computers are joined, volumes of garbage are generated in public discourse. Those who have watched television sports programs will know that Mankoff’s cartoon is, in fact, less of a parody than a documentary. Useless, meaningless statistics flood the attention of the viewer. Sports- casters call them “graphics” in an effort to suggest that the information, graphically presented, is a vital supplement to the action of the game. For example: “Since 1984, the Buffalo Bills have won only two games in which they were four points ahead with less than six minutes to play.” Or this: “In only 17 percent of the times he has pitched at Shea Stadium has Dwight Gooden struck out the third and fourth hitters less than three times when they came to bat with more than one runner on base.” What is one to do with this or to make of it? And yet there seems to be a market for useless information. Those who read USA Today, for example, are offered on the front page of each issue an idiotic statistic of the day that looks something like this: “The four leading states in banana consumption from 1980 through 1989 are Kansas, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Louisiana. Oddly, Nevada, which was ninth in 1989, fell to twenty-sixth last year, which is exactly where it ranks in kiwi consumption.”

 

It is surprising how frequently such blather will serve as the backbone of conversations which are essentially meaningless. I have heard New Yorkers, with a triumphant flourish, offer out-of-towners the statistic that New York City is only eighth in the nation in per-capita violent crimes and then decline to go outside because it was past 6:00 p.m.

 

I do not say, of course, that all such statistical statements are useless. If we learn that one out of every four black males between the ages of twenty and thirty has spent some time in prison, and that the nation’s expenditure for the education of black children is 23 percent less than it is for white children, we may have some statistical facts that will help us to see a cause-and-effect relationship, and thereby suggest a course of action. But statistics, like any other technology, has a tendency to run out of control, to occupy more of our mental space than it warrants, to invade realms of discourse where it can only wreak havoc. When it is out of control, statistics buries in a heap of trivia what is necessary to know.

 

And there is another point, which in fact is the core of this chapter. Some technologies come in disguise. Rudyard Kipling called them “technologies in repose.” They do not look like technologies, and because of that they do their work, for good or ill, without much criticism or even awareness. This applies not only to IQ tests and to polls and to all systems of ranking and grading but to credit cards, accounting procedures, and achievement tests. It applies in the educational world to what are called “academic courses,” as well. A course is a technology for learning. I have “taught” about two hundred of them and do not know why each one lasts exactly fifteen weeks, or why each meeting lasts exactly one hour and fifty minutes. If the answer is that this is done for administrative convenience, then a course is a fraudulent technology. It is put forward as a desirable structure for learning when in fact it is only a structure for allocating space, for convenient record-keeping, and for control of faculty time. The point is that the origin of and raison d’être for a course are concealed from us. We come to believe it exists for one reason when it exists for quite another. One characteristic of those who live in a Technopoly is that they are largely unaware of both the origins and the effects of their technologies.

+VDMA

One Comment

  1. Thank you – that was certainly well-written. I like referencing things much more than writing my own opinions, because that way I don’t feel so arrogant.

    I can’t help but think of FiveThirtyEight, which is the apotheosis of what Postman describes above. I remember trying to explain the Melian dialogue to some friends, who ended up telling me that my over-reliance on political theory – as opposed to “data” – made me a hedgehog, and that I should be more “foxy”, like Nate Silver. Not knowing about foxes and hedgehogs, I looked it up – and immediately decided that I will forever strive to be the hedgehogiest of hedgehogs, holding fast to that one important thing that holds all things together.

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