Sunday, August 14, 2016

Trust Political Pollimg

This is the quadrennial season when we get weedy about political polling.  This is also the season when, because it is political polling, some mug feels obliged to question the authenticity of the polls.  The polls are subject to the same defamation that infects most political discourse these days.  There are voices that expect a certain blind yassuh-boss gulping-whole of whatever drivel they’re selling.
Cynicism is easy.  Uncomfortable facts, we think, can be explained away.  Facts are not like that.  Facts are stubborn and ignored at our peril.
All we need is a little perspective.  Perspective in this case requires that we paid attention in math class and have a nodding acquaintance with the rules of logic.
That’s a tall order.  After all, ignorance is honored on many soap boxes and is a prerequisite to membership in some political movements.
That said, everything we need to learn is available to us stress-free.  Neither is it something we can’t learn in an afternoon.  Not that it comes cheap.  You don’t get to criticize if your basic knowledge is informed by half-assed opinion, wishful thinking or the utterances of those who aren’t clothed with expertise in the topic.
Terms like Margin of Sampling Error, Push Poll, Shy Tory Effect, Bradley Effect, Social Desirability Bias and Weighting will get you a long way.
Similarly, logical fallacies such as Post hoc ergo propter hoc and her kissin’ cousin cum hoc ergo propter hoc are useful principles as well.  They mean that just because events happen sequentially or at the same time doesn’t mean they can be linked. In the world of political slander these adages rank highest among the fallacies manifestly deserving of caution.

While we’re at it, correlation is not causation.  It’s the first thing one learns in logic class and the one thing least honored in the world of political gibberish.  Pundits have a way of filling-in-the-blanks between facts.  Two irrefutable facts thereby bookend a narrative of refutable humbug.

Take a look at this chart.  It appears to be all sciencey comparing the age of Miss Americas and homicide by hotness.  Maybe it is a silly example but you can easily see how false equivalence and mean spiritedness can conspire to produce an elegant lie.
When properly designed, polls do not lie.  Pollsters lie.  Poll respondents lie. Poll analysts lie.  Polls do not lie.  The adage attributed to Mark Twain is
particularly apt here: “Figures don’t lie liars figure”.
Here is an analysis of poll data that I call The Bowel College.   It purports to show one Electoral College victory path for Mrs. Clinton.  Mighty goofy but solid design by Nate Silver, It is included here because polls can be fun too.

So … armed with the healthy sort of skepticism and some basic knowledge, we can trust the polls.  With that trust, the news can be more about information and less about being hoodwinked.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Lying Through Our Teeth

In the abstract there may be some excuse for a lie.  As a matter of fact, certain lies are enshrined in law and used every day.  It is okay to lie to a criminal suspect, for instance.  Lies are all around us as claims of “the best” and the “most effective’ swirl around advertising and advocacy of all kinds.  Lies are generally permitted when national security is genuinely involved.
It is more difficult to justify or countenance lies in public and political discourse.  Few of us would even try to say that lying is a good thing in the context of political speech.
If very few of us can find an excuse for lying, what is our response when our guy is caught in a lie?
Mostly, we just change the subject.  We employ a mechanism that essentially says: “You say my guy is lying but your guy lies too.”
See?  There is no justification made here for the lie.  We merely arrange the question in such a way as to divert attention from my guy’s lies to your guy’s lies.  By this mechanism, we don’t bother with some lies by pointing out other lies.
Let me propose that lying is generally both wrong and unjustifiable.  Lies do not cancel one another out.  Rather, each specific lie, no matter the speaker, stands alone and naked as wrong.
The ditty we learned in our youth is instructive here: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive”.  In Walter Scott’s epic poem, the lie first told to justify an indiscretion within a love triangle, finds its way inevitably and assuredly to a fight and loss of life that could have been avoided absent the lie.
Lying is bad for us. Just so, tolerating a lie implicates us in that lie.