The Black Poll War: The Defeat of the American Political Survery Industry

Part 1: Dispelling Misconceptions

This essay has absolutely nothing to do with race, racism, or the election of the first Black/African American president in U.S. history.  Really.

Part 2: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

The essay’s title is a play on the book title by quantum physicist, Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. My title is a tribute to Dr. Susskind and someday I hope to understand at least half of what he wrote, whichever half that I still don’t understand.  It is kind of like a comprehension uncertainty principle.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain that below.  Really.

Part 3: The Really Scary Part

Because of what I learned from Dr. Susskind (and a few others), I am going to use some principles from quantum mechanics as analogies for “The Black Poll Wars.”  You are safe, however, to keep reading because I am not a quantum physicist and so writing as a layperson, I know my primary challenge is to get the my idea across as cogently as possible.  I admit, we’re not at that point yet.

Part 4: A Promise Not to be Too Scary

The thesis of this post is coming right after the definitions in Part 5 and Part 6.  I promise.

Part 5: Werner Heisenberg’s Very Good Idea

Definitions of the Uncertainty Principle From Three Quantum Physicists:

  1. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle—The principle of Quantum Mechanics that limits one’s ability to determine position and velocity simultaneously.  Leonard Susskind (2008). The Black Hole Wars. P. 453.
  2. Uncertainty principle: There is a fundamental limit in nature in the precisions to which certain measurements can be made. Kenneth Ford (2005). The Quantum World. P. 260.
  3. Uncertainty Principle—The statement that the momentum and position of a particle cannot be known exactly simultaneously.  If the momentum of a particle is known exactly, then the position is completely uncertain, that is, there can be no information on the position.  If the position is known exactly, there can be no information on the magnitude of the momentum.  In general, the principle states that the position and the momentum can only be known with a certain degree of uncertainty.  This is intrinsic to nature and not a consequence of experimental error.  Michael Frayer (2010). Absolutely Small. P. 372.

Part 6: Uncertainty: The Answer not the Question

For those of you who are craving for at least one mathematical formula  because of the definitions in Part 5, here it is for the Uncertainty Principle.  On the other hand, if math of any kind causes you to break out in hives, please skip to Part 7.

ΔxΔp≥ ħ/2

Definition of Terms from Ford:

On the right side is the ubiquitous Planck’s constant [ħ] (here divided by 2π), which turns up in every equation  in quantum mechanics.  Momentum is represented by p, and position (distance) by x.  The Δ symbols are used here to mean “uncertainty of” (not “change of”): Δx is the uncertainty of position; Δp is the uncertainty of momentum.  The product of these two uncertainties is equal to the constant ħ (p. 213-214).*

* The alert reader will see that Dr. Ford’s definition of ħ, though correct for the value of ħ, lacks the definition of ħ/2.  Ford defines Heisenberg’s 1927 originally published  formula for uncertainty (which is the context of the definition in that chapter of The Quantum World).  Later that same year the formula was modified, known as the Kenard Revision , and was considered a refinement of the original, which is now known as the Classical Formula. (For the most recent formulation of the Uncertainty Principle, see the Wikipedia article.)

Part 7: The Black Poll War

To be clear, here is my thesis statement for this post:  The polling data being collected and published today will  in all likelihood be wrong in November when the election takes place.  Why?  The pollsters and the public believe the polls.  Right now, if you go to a website such as Polster.com, you will find an up-to-date list of all the major political surveyors and pollsters, professional and academic, party-affiliated and independent.  The people who publish the results of their surveys, for the most part, are highly trained professionals and are working very hard to mine the opinions of the American public.  They use the accepted methodologies for their survey research, collection and analysis.   They are vying for the status of being the most reliable polling organization in country, and many have the history and credentials to make that a genuinely possible achievement.  As an individual who has been trained to do research, has conducted surveys myself, using the same methods, I have, with one or two exceptions, no argument with the quality of their work.

I am growing increasingly convinced, however, they are going to fail.  Two or three of the national survey organizations at most may be lucky and get the final results right.  The rest will not.  The reason is simple; the explanation less so.

This will be the year of the Black Poll War.  The image is appealing for several reasons, aside from the allusion to the Black Hole Wars recently fought in astrophysics.  Election day will be a black day for one of the political parties.  As we get closer to that date, the polls, which historically should be coalescing into a clearer picture will appear to be doing so, but actually be less and less accurate. Those few who are paying attention to what I’m about to suggest will be scrambling to read the tea leaves, so to speak, but instead, may share with me this growing discomfort we are gazing down the maw of a black hole.  Light goes in and never comes out.  The show will appear to be the Event Horizon (the highly charged ring that encircles a black hole) and it will be spectacular, giving the pundits of all stripes an unlimited amount of material to fill the radio and TV airwaves.  They, too, however, will be stunned at how wrong they were the day after.

As I said, the reason is simple.  There is a cultural and sociological equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle at work here in the United States.  We are, undoubtedly, not the only nation experiencing this phenomenon.  But being who we are, the impact the principle is having on us has a disproportionately larger impact on the rest of the world.  If I understand the true relevance of the Uncertainty Principle, it has the biggest effect on the smallest things, such as a single photon of light, or a proton, or some other sub-atomic particle.  Now, stay with me here.  I promise no more math.  The Principle has the least affect on the biggest things in the universe, like galaxies or even clusters of galaxies.

From Royal Astrologers to the Second Foundation

The big things–That is exactly what the pollsters and public are searching for, the big trends, the big shifts, the big percentages.  That’s what surveys are for, right?  Well, of course.  We Americans are obsessed with–majority– I’ll bet you thought I was going to say big.  Just  thinking off the top of my head, we might  be past that stage in some respects.  Look at the trend in consumer electronics.  Bigger isn’t better, smaller is.  More features packed into a smaller container.  The computer I’m writing on with all the capabilities it has started life as a giant, slow, data cruncher that would have filled rooms.  In fact, those early computers couldn’t do 90% of what my lap top does.   Half a century ago if you had used the word “nano” in a sentence, the reaction would be blank stares.  Now we use in everyday conversation like it really means something.  Because it really does.

What, then, is our obsession with majorities?  Politically speaking, the answer is straightforward.  Democracy, as we define it, runs on the foundation that majority rules.  And the reason that formula is used is because we get to cast our vote on a remarkably large number of issues, both regarding choosing the people we want to lead us and in (many different ways) choosing which laws we want to help structure our philosophy of what constitutes an orderly society.  Inherent in this kind of governing system (yes, I know, technically the United States is a republic), is the fact that every time we vote, someone or something wins and someone or something loses.

The people who voted for the person or law that lost are never happy about it, but in a republic, that is the way of things. Since the losers might have been the winners, we agree as citizens living under one Great Code of Governance we call The Constitution, someone always will be in the role of the loser, or to borrow the more genteel phrase from our British friends, “the loyal opposition.”

In the contemporary setting, we are doing far better at the opposition part than the loyal part. There is this emerging undercurrent that the opposition considers itself to be loyal and the majority to be disloyal.  No matter which party is in the majority, when that political shift begins to be a resonating theme of discontent, the very foundation of the republic is at risk.  That analysis, however, is not direction I intend to go in this essay.

My guess is that the field of survey polling exists only because of democracy and voting.  Prior to that political innovation, kings and queens, emperors and empresses, and all sort of other sovereigns wanted to know the future.  The role of astrologers was to provide them with that information.  They didn’t consult the monarch’s subjects; they consulted the stars.  Despite the Disneyesque concept we have of sorcerers and viziers, astrologers were generally among the educated elite (they had to be to write the horoscopes for their particular  patron), and used more sophisticated methods of obtaining information than just drawing planets and epicycles on sheets of parchment.  It is likely that the best astrologers had agents out in the field gathering information for them.  Most were probably covertly operating spies so as not to blow the astrologer’s cover of celestial omniscience.  In one respect it helped assure the Royal Astrologer kept his head attached his body.  In another respect it was the birth of polling.

With the emergence of democracy, covert information gathering on the mood of the populace could finally step into the sunlight.  Both the leaders and public wanted to know the present sentiment of the voters, and also wanted to use that information in all sorts of creative ways, some legitimate, some as a complete distortion.  The goal was and is to achieve the Majority.  Everyone wants their side to be the majority, because of the control and power it conveys.  To meet that demand one of the branches of the science of statistics began developing formulas.  And they were very good at it.  Within a century statistical polling became one of the most powerful tools of any political party, candidate, or ballot measure or initiative proponent.  And for the most part, since Americans not only love to vote, but love to express our opinions about how we plan to vote, survey polling is one of the most lucrative fields to be in (well, as long as you are on the executive side of things).

Survey polling, though, has a huge flaw.  The “black poll war” is going to produce an across-the-board defeat of the field.  The flaw is that survey polling is based on separating the majority and minority, and reporting it as if it were real.  It is their philosophical “theory of everything.”  The issue, from their perspective, is settled.  Yes, methodologies can be refined and trend analysis can be made more robust by the addition of ever-more-precise demographics.  Increasingly sophisticated software run on supercomputers can crunch data at mind-boggling speeds.  All of those things however are no more than a paper mache disk painted to look like a man-hole cover.  You don’t want to step on it.

The flaw is this: Survey polling is still operating in the classical world of majority research.  It is by analogy the same difference between the classical world of Newtonian physics and the Planckian world of Quantum Mechanics.  Survey polling has no equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle, and that is going to make all the difference.

Waiter, there’s a quark in my soup bowl.

Think of it this way.  Suppose I invite an experienced pollster to lunch  for soup.  I place two identical bowls in front her .  One is filled with a steamy hot, delicious soup with a wonderful aroma.  The other contains water filled to the same level.  Then I ask her, as a pollster, to describe the characteristics of each bowl.  Playing along, hoping that she will get the bowl with soup and not the water, she adeptly describes the contents of each bowl.  Next, I ask her, “if each bowl represented a bloc of voters, which one will win?”  Since both bowls are filled to the identical level, she correctly says, “I can’t tell.  I can only make a decision which has the majority.”  I take away the bowl with the water and replace it with an empty bowl.  I repeat my question, and she quite accurately answers “If the amount of soup is the equivalent to the number of votes cast, then the bowl with the soup wins.”  I ask my final question.  “The votes are based on the number of quarks (a subatomic particle that is part of every atom) in each bowl.  Which bowl has the most quarks?”

How would you answer?

We will attempt to find a solution to this question in the next post.  Happy pondering!

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