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, 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!

Radiation Sniffer: On Alert for the Nuclear Option

In my post of July 3, I made the bold suggestion that the various Big Medicine groups could very well be planning to “drop the bomb” on the whole effort toward Universal Health Care, either before the legislation was finalized and voted on, or perhaps even after.  I called this the “Nuclear Option.”

Do not assume for a micro-second they have given up. They are preparing the Nuclear Option. One all-out attack on universal health care, with no regard for collateral damage, just the health of America. In the Board Rooms of the Insurance Megacorps, Big Pharma, Corporate Hospitals, and dozens of other stakeholders firmly anchored in the Status Quo, they are planning to bring this down. Once and for all, to obliterate the very notion of universal health care so completely, that it will never threaten their companies and profits again.

The question is, in all fairness, even though my hypothesis using organizational theory predicts the likelihood of an attempt to prevent UHC from becoming law, or destroying it after it is passed, is there any evidence to support it?  I also stated,

The door for the Nuclear Option is now open. Why? Because the real-life environment to which we are applying my theory is not just one company; we are applying it to a multifaceted industry that has for decades successfully resisted and obstructed the move toward universal health care. And they know that by conspiring together and pooling their resources, they can potentially create a huge wall of resistance. This strategy has a flaw, however. A significant percentage of companies in the industry are supportive of UHC, and are already changing the practice of their organizations to successfully ride the transformative wave. This fact only serves to increase the opponents’ anxiety. Who has the most to lose?

The political and economic environment is volatile and turbulent.  What I needed was a “radiation sniffer,” so to speak, a virtual monitor that would look for “leakage” that might be evidence of the Nuclear Option being planned.  At the same time, I needed an operational definition for “sniffing radiation” that would naturally provide boundaries against my finding “evidence” under every rock just to prove my hypothesis.

That set up two basic choices.  One would be to look for evidence that claimed outright that this group or that was planning to use their version of the Nuclear Option.  The other was to look for evidence that the players known to be facing the biggest losses were playing their game very close to the vest; in other words to look for evidence where what was not being said was more important that what was.

I chose the second.  This is why:

Therefore, if the individuals on the [Big Medicine] Boards and their Executive Management fail to manage their anxiety about the turbulence and the implications of transformative change in motion, and as they realize their historical resources for influence (i.e., lobbying) are waning, they will tend to take the most conservative stance to defend the survival of the organization, and that stance will tend to be to preserve the status quo at all cost.

And, the status quo has been for decades to work politically behind the scenes through lobbying and other forms of influence.  The job of the Public Relations department is to create a public face for the organization that oozes altruism and the common good over the corporation’s true mission to make as much profit as possible using every Machiavellian principle in the book.

Preparing the Nuclear Option requires planning, stealth, subterfuge, and sleight of hand.  In Board rooms around the country listen for the clink of glasses filled with expensive hooch, accompanied by the toast, “They’ll never see it coming!”

Am I skeptical and mistrusting of organizational motivations?  Of course I am.

Here is my first example for possible radiation, in a piece written by David Herzenhorn and Sheryl Gay Stohlberg for the New York Times, July 7th, titled “Health Deals Could Harbor Hidden Costs:”

Rather than running advertisements against the White House, the most influential players in the industry are inside the room negotiating with administration officials and leading lawmakers, like Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Finance Committee.

“The very groups we have been talking to have been the most vocal opponents of health care reform; they are now becoming the vocal proponents for health care reform,” said Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

How very “chummy” of them.  Sniff, sniff.

The Radiation Sniffer is now fully operational and on-line.  Watch for more to come.  Or if you find something interesting, send to me and I’ll check it out.

Universal Health Care Confronts the Nuclear Option

The Nuclear Option (just for those of you who are stilled mired in Bush-speak, it is pronounced “new-klee-ur” not “new-cue-lar”).  In this case I’m not talking about the U.S. Senate rule called “reconciliation.”

No, in this case I’m wondering what is going on in the minds of those who have so adamantly and vociferously have opposed Universal Health Care in the United States.  Yesterday, Paul Krugman New York Times columnist, wrote in his blog,

Yes, we can

Get more or less universal coverage, that is. The CBO scoring on an incomplete bill sent everyone into a tizzy — and also led to an avalanche of bad reporting, with claims that it said terrible things about the public option. (There was no public option in the bill.)

Now the real thing has been scored — and it’s OK. Something like 97 percent coverage for people already here, at a total cost somewhere in the $1 trillion range. Bear in mind that the Bush tax cuts cost around $1.8 trillion over a decade. We can do this — and have no excuse for not doing it.

In the minds of the opponents of UHC, however, nothing has changed.  That’s what worries me.  In fact, as the evidence mounts that assuring every American has access to health care can be a reality and not doom the economy (as they have so desperately hoped), the opponents are realizing the End-Game is upon them.  They are losing.  Not only has every traditional method of obstruction not worked, or not worked well, the vast majority of Americans are solidly against them.  Heard any good anti-health care spin from Rush, Karl, John Boehner, or Mitch McConnell in the past couple of weeks?  If they were gaining ground with their argument, neither the election in Iran or Michael Jackson’s death could drown them out.  Not even South Carolina Governor Sanford’s adventures in Wonderland would diminish their clarion call for Big Medicine.

Their voices have faded to background static.

Do not assume for a micro-second they have given up.  They are preparing the Nuclear Option.  One all-out attack on universal health care, with no regard for collateral damage, just the health of America.  In the Board Rooms of the Insurance Megacorps, Big Pharma, Corporate Hospitals, and dozens of other stakeholders firmly anchored in the Status Quo, they are planning to bring this down.  Once and for all, to obliterate the very notion of universal health care so completely, that  it will never threaten their companies and profits again.

Am I paranoid?  Well, even if you are not paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you anyway.

I’m not paranoid, actually.  I’m well read in organizational theory (it was the corner stone of my doctoral dissertation in educational policy and management), and I understand how organizations respond in unstable ecologies and economic turbulence.  When resources are threatened, the people running the organization will tend to react in predictable ways.  When the operational environment changes more quickly than expected, or in ways unanticipated, the predictable management responses are more and more stressed.  If those responses lack the ability to guide the organization through transformational change (like, oh, General Motors), the likelihood of the company failing is very high.

Keeping all that in mind, when the entire global environment, e.g., the country’s health care system, begins to collapse because of a rapid set of ecological changes so powerful the only way to survive is to change transformatively (an analog of the evolutionary concept of “punctuated equilibrium”), only those institutions that have the capacity to change at the same rate and direction required for survival will likely survive.

How, then, does the Nuclear Option fit in this model?  Organizations use their resources to influence and improve their ability to survive in the existing ecological conditions, and eliminate competition for both the resources they need to exist and to improve their chances for greater access to those resources.  But here’s the rub: Organizations are “communities of fate.”  They are actually aggregates of individuals whose investment (personally and professionally) in the success of the organization varies from person to person.  In a corporation, those who have have highest investment are typically the Board of Directors and the Shareholders.  But they have to rely on managers and workers, to both produce and protect their investment.

The managers and workers have a much different perspective on the degree to which they consider the company their community of fate.  When the organization encounters increasing turbulence in its environment, the willingness of the people actually doing the work to cast their fate to ensure its success is much less certain.  If the situation worsens to the degree the survival of the company is in question, the confidence the managers and workers have in the Board’s decision making ability to, specifically save their jobs, can change very quickly.  Some workers will leave the company and look for more stable employment.  Others will stick with it until the bitter end, if it comes to that.  But if you work for an Enron, the house of cards can collapse on top of you regardless of your loyalty.

The pressure on the Board and the managers to keep the organization both alive and solvent can increase rapidly, especially in the situation where the environment and resources are changing at a rate unprecedented in history.  Even organizations that survived earlier transformational evolutionary changes may not survive the current one.  Because of the anxiety generated by the environmental turbulence, the shareholders put more pressure on the Board and managers to preserve their investment and continue to pay dividends.  The workers who are loyal to the company also put pressure on their supervisors to help preserve their jobs.  But loyalty to the community of fate by the worker is always much riskier, because the Board and the managers can, at  any time, cut positions that can eliminate the most loyal employees under the stated intent of protecting the viability of the organization by reducing personnel costs.  This trauma to the community of fate, however, is no guarantee the organization will survive the changing ecology.  It may, instead, guarantee its demise.

Now, here’s the part, as I build the case for the Nuclear Option, that I as an organizational theorist suggest sets the stage:  The critical decisions of the Board over time to adjust to the turbulence is a not a function of taking the most conservative stance in context, but is a function of the individual members of the Board and the Executive Managements’ ability to manage their anxiety in the midst of the turbulence, and at the same time abandon the mimetic* solutions traditionally used to control that anxiety across the organizational or industrial environment.  [*mimesis: from “mime.”  A concept in organizational ecology that says Company A will observe Company B, and adopt a successful process to “avoid reinventing the wheel.”  Over time this mimed process may become an industry standard.  The down side is that when the environment changes, continuing to adopt the mimed process may limit innovation and increase the chances of organizational failure.]

Therefore, if the individuals on the Board and the Executive Management fail to manage their anxiety about the turbulence and the implications of transformative change in motion, and as they realize their historical resources for influence (i.e., lobbying) are waning, they will tend to take the most conservative stance to defend the survival of the organization, and that stance will tend to be to preserve the status quo at all cost.  As organizational rigidity increases, adaptibility and innovation are stifled.

The door for the Nuclear Option is now open.  Why?  Because the real-life environment to which we are applying my theory is not  just one company; we are applying it to a multifaceted industry that has for decades successfully resisted and obstructed the move toward universal health care.  And they know that by conspiring together and pooling their resources, they can potentially create a huge wall of resistance.  This strategy has a flaw, however.  A significant percentage of companies in the industry are supportive of UHC, and are already changing the practice of their organizations to successfully ride the transformative wave.  This fact only serves to increase the opponents’ anxiety.  Who has the most to lose?

The portion of the industry that opposes UHC has powerful political and social connections.  The Republican Party, although reduced in its influence at the last election still has significant resources at its disposal, as well as a core of voters, who for numerous reasons at least state they don’t want to pay for UHC.

This set of circumstances, powered by huge finances, politics, ideology, and desperation creates the possibility that those who have the most to lose as they perceive it are going to try and “drop the bomb” on the universal health care.  Whether they make their move before the Congress acts, or, have a strategy to destroy it even after it has been signed into law, I can’t tell.  But I believe they are well into their planning and will indeed act.

A final note.  Another principle, not from organizational theory, but from psychohistory, is also undoubtedly in play in this situation.  Speaking not literally, but figuratively:  “Violence is the final refuge of the incompetent.”

Communities of Fate: Read the Abstract to my Journal Article

I have added a page to my blog that provides the abstract to my journal article and the ERIC citation, co-authored with Paul Goldman, PhD (my doctoral adviser) “Universities as Communities of Fate: Institutional Rhetoric and Student Retention Policy” published in the Journal of Educational Administration in 2005.  Just click on the “Communities of Fate” link below the header.

I remain deeply grateful to Paul for his support and guidance, both during my doctoral studies and for encouraging and shepherding me through the publication process!

Thank you Paul, and I miss our long sessions drinking very strong coffee, the great discussions about organizational and educational policy, and the hours working on yet another draft of the article!