Hospital Food for the Mind

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Gallup didn’t call me for their USAToday poll on the Debt Ceiling bill.  The results indicated Democrats and progressives were more positive about the final product than Republicans and Tea Party members, a fact I find incredulous.  I would have been ready to give the pollster a detailed account of my thorough displeasure over the mess this bill just created.  And that’s my take being firmly on the progressive side of the opinion scale.

Let the Backfiring Begin!

One group is stumped over what happened.  Tea Party members report being dissatisfied by the bill by 80%. Despite the fact their faction acted as a curdling agent in the legislation, rendering it both unpalatible and inedible but still force-fed into law, they don’t like it.  Granted, the bill did not force the virtual dismantling of the federal government or wipe out their most despised social programs. Nevertheless, I have this sneaking suspicion that they really believed that once they had hijacked the bill, they could force their will onto the rest of the Congress Backfire #1.

Backfire #2 appears to be that the global stock markets were already weakened and skittish from the Great Recession. Near panic from the debt ceiling fight, they took one look at the junk attached to an otherwise one-page piece of legislation and that anxiety blossomed into a full-blown state of apoplexy and, among other things wiped out $ billions in the Tea Party adherents’ investments and pensions.  And, of course that crash pulled in the rest of us thanks to their gross inability to understand Macroeconomics 101.

Numerous backfires will continue to create havoc in our politics. The final one I’ll mention in this post is the credibility of conservative agenda. Magnified and distorted a thousand times by the Tea Party’s first, and we can only pray, last congressional disaster visited upon the Union, their believability has been reduced to next to nothing.  They won’t get it, of course. In fact I expect them to be noisier at least through the 2012 general election. But as the backfires continue to damage the country at home and abroad, their chance to be a sustained political voice will be muted more and more.

The tragedy for the rest of us is the consequnces we will be forced to endure. The Tea Party won’t get that either.

Hey NBC & WSJ–What’s With Your Poll Report?

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Today NBC and the Wall Street Journal released a new survey conducted by the polling company Hart/McInturff.  MSNBC.com’s deputy political director, Mark Murray writes,

The GOP’s ‘likely’ advantage

In the survey, 50 percent of likely voters say they prefer a Republican-controlled Congress, versus 43 percent who want Democrats in charge.

Last month, Republicans held a 46 percent to 43 percent advantage among likely voters on this question.

The GOP’s current seven-point lead, McInturff observes, is on pace — historically — to result in a shift of power in Congress. “The Democrats, with two weeks left, are facing very, very difficult arithmetic.”

Yet among the wider universe of registered voters, Democrats hold a two-point edge, 46 to 44 percent, which is up from the 44 percent to 44 percent tie in September.

But Hart calls that lead “hollow,” because not all registered voters will participate, especially in a midterm election.

Indeed, among those expressing a high interest in voting this midterm season, Republicans hold a 13-point advantage on the generic ballot, 53 percent to 40 percent.

So, as I often do, I clicked on the link to the published survey results and read it through looking for the results described in the article.  First time through I thought I missed this 50% to 43% advantage of the Republicans over the Democrats.  So I read it again, now looking line by line where that percentage comparison came up.  I couldn’t find it.  Okay, so one more time, very deliberately reading through the survey.  Nada.  What I did discover were two very interesting questions that belie a different mood in the electorate.

Keep in mind this was a survey of 1000 registered voters, which, as I have explained in previous posts, I hold to the theory that registered voters provide a more reliable sample and predictor of which way the election is more likely to go.  In two weeks we’ll know.

Let’s look first at question Q11a:

Q11a:   What is your preference for the outcome of this year’s congressional elections — (ROTATE:) a Congress controlled by Republicans or a Congress controlled by Democrats?

The result favors the Democrats 46% to Republicans 44%. That is mentioned in the quote above.  It’s also within the published margin of error of +/- 3.10%.  One could say, therefore, it’s a wash, but there is some interesting info in the trends.  The median (the midpoint of the 11 surveys NBC/WSJ has conducted since January 2010 for the Republicans is 44% and the Democrats, 43%.  Now that is tight!  The slope of those eleven surveys for this question is also small, 0.21% for the GOP and 0.25% for the Dems.  Not what you might write home about.  But still, when you apply those numbers to tens of millions of voters, small changes can make the difference.  It also shows that the Democrats are perhaps not in quite as bad a shape as the pundits have been droning on about month after month.

But there is more.  Question Q12A reads:

Q12a: If you had the choice in your congressional district, would you be more likely to vote for a (ROTATE:) Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, or  Green Party candidate for Congress?

Since the smaller party candidates are at best wild cards, we can’t make a prediction if those who claim affiliation will actually vote for them.  But here, we find the responses again favor the Democrats over the Republicans, 44% to 41%.  Unfortunately, the survey does not provide the historical results of this question.

If you have looked at the published survey results, you might have noticed a number of questions are missing.  So, we can perhaps infer that NBC and the WSJ decided the most interesting information in the survey they wanted to keep to themselves, which is their prerogative since they paid for it.  And perhaps that 50% Republican advantage is among those survey items that were, shall we say, redacted.  But if the Democrats are in such dire shape going into the election and the survey shows that is very clear, why bother with cutting questions out of the published report?  Wouldn’t a reasonable person, or especially a partisan one, such as the Wall Street Journal’s clear editorial preference for Conservatives, want that information right there for everyone to see?  I can’t answer that question, but I do find it perplexing.

Nevertheless, there is enough information to ponder the strength of the GOP’s “surge” as reported.  My updated graph with the trend lines still shows the Democrats in a stronger growth curve:



Registered Voters Surveys 18 Oct 10. Data Courtesy HuffPost Pollster

I will be eagerly looking forward to the next batch of polls to be released.  Each data point provides a world of information about might or can happen on November 2nd.

Krugman Verifies the Bungee Cord

I’m sitting in the SFO airport waiting for final leg home from a week in San Diego at the National Disciples Pastors Conference.  Getting caught up on Paul Krugman’s NYT blogs.  Just read this: http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/09/22/not-over/.  He uses the same Pollster.com I used in my last post.

Just sayin’.  More when I get home and a good night’s sleep.  Typed this on my Droid, by the way.

Where the Wild Things Are–Reading the Polls

Tuesday night, September 14, 2010: The final day of the big primaries prior to the general election in November.  I’m sitting watching the results come in.  My network of choice tonight is MSNBC.  It’s just so much fun watching Rachel Maddow narrate the primary like it was a Super Bowl.

Statistics during the election season are thrown around like cheap bead necklaces at a Mardi Gras parade.  Polls are quoted like they mean something and are perfect predictors of the future.

Well, I’m going to tell you something the politicians and pollsters and pundits would prefer you don’t know:

Polls Results Can Be Stretched Like Bungee-Jumping.

Yep, its true.  And I can give some simple examples.

You can follow along.  But open a new window in your browser so you can click back and forth more easily.

First click here on Pollster.com.  This should take you to the 2010 National Congressional Ballot. This is for the House of Representatives only.  What we’re interested in is the polling chart.  It should look like this:

2010 National Congressional Ballot. Image: Pollster.com

So, how do you read this mess of dots and lines?  The dots are called a scatter plot and each one represents a poll taken on a certain day or period of days (usually 2-3).  The date of the poll is on the horizontal line and the percentage Republican (red) and Democratic (blue) is on the vertical line.  The squiggly lines in the middle are called a trend line and represents the mid-point of the dots for that day.  For those of you who may have taken statistics some time in the past, this is also called a linear regression. The colors represent the same political parties as the dots.  Correction: Dr. John Bogen, an Extreme Thinkover contributor, corrected my error in labeling the trend line as a “linear regression.”  Although the trend lines are based on regression formulas, I should have labeled it as Pollster.com calls it, a “trend estimate.”  For more info on Pollster’s statistical methods for trend estimates, click here.

Now take a moment to go to the Pollster.com site and look at their “live” chart.  Each dot will open a fly-by box telling you the pollster, date and the results.  Pretty nifty, huh.  There is also an expand box in the upper right hand corner if you want to open the chart to fill your screen.  The features still all work.

What, then, does this chart, as presented, convey?  Notice the date begins in November 2008, at the time of the Presidential election and covers the time since then.  Here the trend line is easier to read because you can see the ups and downs of the popularity of each of the two major parties over the past two years.

If this chart was the only one you looked at you would conclude that the Republicans have made huge gains beginning about May 2010 and now hold a 47.1% to 40.6% lead over the Democrats.  And you would be wrong.  Something is missing.  First of all what about the undecided voters?  Where are they?  How many of them are there? What is their trend?  For that answer, click here.

A new set of black dots with a trendline appears on the chart representing those voters who answered “undecided” on who they plan to vote for.  You can also see that as this year has progressed, the line has trended just slightly upward, and only since August have more of the people made up their minds.  As of today though, the undecideds are still 10.4% of the total, which is larger than the gap between the Republicans and the Democrats.  This is where it gets interesting.

I submit that in this gap is where the wild things are, to reframe the title of Maurice Sendak’s beloved children’s book.

Reading the gaps is where the information about the most dynamic trends in the electorate are.  Follow me on this.  Go back to the original chart.  You should already have the Red, Blue and Black trends open.  On the footer is a button titled “Tools.” Click on it and it will open another footer just above with six different choices on it.  Click on “Filter.”  This will open a small window with three check boxes: Live phone interviews, automated phone (i.e. robocall) interviews, and internet.  Place your cursor on each one and you will get a list of “filter options.”  Notice on the first option, Live phone interviews, there is an arrow in the top right hand corner.  This option has three pages and we’ll use them.

We want to narrow our polling data to the most relevant and the highest chance for honest answers.  To do that, based on my criteria (you are free to choose your own), I say let’s eliminate the internet surveys, first.  They are very hard to get a true random sample and very easy to lie on.  Next, let’s eliminate the robocalls, too.  Even though the calls go out to a random sample (supposedly) it is very easy to lie to a machine.  That leaves us with the live interviews.  These surveyors, you will notice are familiar big name pollsters, who have a reputation to uphold, and nearly all of them publish their survey questions and results online for free access for anyone interested in reading them (which would include geeks like me).   We want to cull some of these, still.  They are the pollsters for both political parties because there is a greater chance they will ask weighted questions that favor their side.

So, uncheck the internet, robocalls, and on the live call pages every pollster ID’d with either a R or a D.  Now we have a select set of pollsters who are as neutral as possible and use real people to talk to voters to decrease the chance for lying or misrepresentation.

One more thing.  We really only want to look at the results for the current primary season.  So again, click on tools and then on “Date Range.”  On the left date, click on the month and set it to “01”, the day, “01” and the year, “10” and then click on the blue “Set Range” button.

Look at your results on the chart now.  The polling results have changed.  The Republicans sit at 47.7%, the Democrats at 41.1% and the undecided at a whopping 17.1%!  This, I would suggest is a much clearer picture of the state of the electorate regarding the races in the House of Representatives.  By eliminating those polls that introduce bias into the big picture, either by the way they are administered, or by the way they are designed to benefit their candidates, we can see that the November election is far less certain than most pundits and politicians are leading us to believe.

The fact that apparently over 17% of the electorate is still vacillating about who they will vote for in the general election means the predicted gains by the Republicans has to be called into question, the predicted losses by the Democrats has to be called into question, and the outcomes across the country will very possibly be different than is now being predicted.  It may also mean that the gains or losses may be greater than predicted and one party or the other end up with a significant lop-sided outcome.

But one principle in polling must not be forgotten.  Each poll is a snap-shot in time and by itself can be either an accurate or inaccurate reflection of the voters’ will. It is also important to remember the truism that all politics is local and as Dr. Bogen also points out, the undecided percentage is likely to be smaller on the local scene.  He also rightly suggests this local phenomenon, all things being equal, favors the challenger.   This same principle applies to groups of polls as well because they are aggregates of local polls.  Political trending, although becoming more sophisticated all the time still cannot reliably predict the outcome on election day every time.  We have far to go to reach the algorithmic precision of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation “psychohistory.”  In the mean time we  have to search for the data where the wild things are.

Dumbing Down the POTUS

This post is not about George W. Bush.  Really.  Although he had a role in my thesis.  This post is about our current president, Barack Obama.  I don’t want there to be any confusion about that.

It finally struck me yesterday what the GOP is up to regarding the November elections, after four events, three of which were unusual, filled the majority of my day.

They were, in this order:

  1. I watched two hours of Fox News shows at the behest of my friend, Dr. John Bogen, who is politically as conservatively moderate as I am liberally moderate.  Many of the themes I discuss below were the primary topics of those shows.  (If you are a regular reader of Extreme Thinkover, you will remember John’s very fine posts last fall on the H1N1 Pandemic, both regarding vaccinations and his advice how to understand H2N1 H1N1 (thanks, John!).
  2. I read an article about how the White House allowed President Obama’s passport–yes the President’s passport–to be photographed to counter the ongoing idiocy of the so-called “birthers” who obstinately cling to the totally false accusation that Obama was not born in the United States.  The issue of people believing the President is a Muslim is so far off the scale of absurdity it doesn’t even get its own separate number.
  3. While wandering around a big box electronics store I started experiencing chest pains and deciding to err on the side of caution and went to my hospital’s urgent care.  All my tests came out negative, fortunately, but with my family’s history of cardiac artery disease I’ve earned a ticket to be the main attraction in my second stress test.  Thinking about one’s mortality is a sobering moment for anyone.  I also have health insurance.
  4. After I got home, I got to watch my favorite NASCAR driver, Kyle Busch, set a NASCAR record at Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee by sweeping the three races of weekend.

It was during the race it hit me what the conservatives are doing to try to defeat the Democrats this fall and to discredit not only the president but the presidency in every way possible for their advantage. Why during the race?  Maybe it had to do with the vagaries of a car race, the strategies, and the ever-present reality that each driver and his car only has so much control over what is happening to them.  Someone else makes the smallest of mistakes and you can be out of the race with your car a pile of scrap metal in a fraction of a second.  Or maybe it was just dumb luck.

You will remember, quite painfully if you are a person with any capacity to carry on a civil conversation with someone you disagree with, the Cirque de Chaos we had to endure during the Congressional recess town hall meetings last August over the Tea Party and health care and carrying guns around in public like it was the Showdown in the O.K. Corral.  This year, there’s hardly been a whimper over this.  That’s because the new strategy is much more subtle and the Far Right learned one lesson: viewer fatigue.  By the end of August last year, the “scream at your politician” gambit had backfired; most Americans get fed up with toddler-type tantrums very quickly.  Simply put, the Far Right overplayed its hand.

The plan this summer is to make the president look dumb.  Also incompetent, if possible, but definitely dumb.

Why?  Because Barack Obama is probably one of the smartest presidents in the history of the nation in terms of sheer intellect.   So the way to attack him is to create, in this case, two exceptionally dumb fabrications about him: he wasn’t born in Hawaii, and he is Muslim, and then keep feeding those very stupid lies by constantly just hinting about them or have pundits “debate” the issue on TV and radio.

Dumbing Down the POTUS. Image Courtesy Motifake: http://www.motifake.com

http://www.motifake.com

This strategy works because there is no rational way to defend against it.  You can’t “put this one to bed” because there is no effective counter-strategy.  So the Republican leadership, now held hostage by the Far Right Wingnuts, can just keep the topic alive by continuing to feed their constituents who have bought into it.  And the way you do that is very simple: whenever the question is asked, you deny it, but ambiguously.

Last year, the Far Right tried shouting and threats of revolution.  It fell flat on its face.  This year they are trying lies and innuendo.  It’s a big gamble for the GOP because the Tea Party and other Far Right groups are much like a political multi-headed Hydra each with its own idea of who should be in control and what the outcomes should be.  But the Republicans lack a Hercules to control this beast.  Rep. John Boehner, Sen. Mitch McConnell, and RNCC Chair Michael Steele to a person lack the ability or imagination to keep these groups under control.  I suspect Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are hoping they can throw meat at the monster without getting eaten themselves.

The question is can the Democrats find their equivalent of a Hercules to cut off the heads, politically speaking, of the Right’s Hydra?  President Obama, in my opinion, is more than capable, as we saw him campaign for the office, but now as Leader of the Free World, his focus should be on his job, not slaying dragons.  The same goes for Vice President Joe Biden.  Sen. Harry Reid, in addition to being in the fight of his career to keep his senate seat, is the epitome of milquetoast.  Rep. Nancy Pelosi has the fire, but in addition to being speaker of the House, is in her own campaign.  The DNC’s chair, Tom Kaine, is an excellent administrator, but has wisely kept out of the spotlight.

I’ve heard more than one pundit and politician say the Democrats are disorganized and not responding effectively to the attacks from the right.  That may or may not be true.  It may be the Democratic strategy is to let the Far Right, with all their fractures run their course, and when they begin to collapse, pounce with the equivalent with a sledge hammer against a glass window pane.  In reality it would not take much for the Republican Party to implode upon itself.  The GOP’s structure is much more precarious than they are letting on.

In the meantime they are going to attempt to make the president look dumb, out of touch, incompetent, a threat to the American Way of Life.  He is none of those things, so eventually the truth will out.  I continue to read the polls with a huge grain of salt.  Now I know what I’m looking for, I’ll be able to tell more clearly what is happening below the surface.  November 2, 2010 is still going to be a very interesting election day.

The Black Poll Wars: Bowling for Votes, Part II

The Black Poll Wars: The Coming Defeat of the Survey Polling Industry

In my previous post, I made the following rash assertion:

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.

Survey polling 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.

I pick up my argument from here…

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?

The question is not theoretical.  Quarks are real subatomic particles. Every atom contains quarks and there just happen to be six kinds of quarks and each quark has “flavor” (appropriate to soup, as well) so to come up with an answer, that multiplicity has to be factored in.  My pollster, growing hungrier by the minute, now has to solve a multidimensional model, for which she presumably has no statistical formula to work (cross-tabs won’t work here because she does not know which of the six types of quarks represent a yes vote or no vote).

To avoid my researcher becoming peckish and storming out, I bring her a fresh bowl of the soup so she can eat and think about the two bowls in front of her.

Classical statistical reasoning would look at the two bowls, one filled and one empty and conclude that the one with the soup, since the soup is made up of atoms, would therefore have all the quarks, so the empty bowl could be eliminated and the researcher could concentrate on determining which of the six kind of soup quarks represent which kind of vote.  And that would be wrong.

Quantum statistical reasoning would look at both bowls being full.  One with soup and the other with air.  Gaseous atoms have quarks just like soup atoms do.  Now my survey researcher asks for a second bowl of soup because this will take a while to figure out.  In fact, she has a bigger problem than simply counting quarks.  Since the soup is a fluid (we’ll ignore the atoms being steamed off) the number of quarks will remain reasonably stable.  The air in the other bowl is in constant motion, however, so the number of quarks moving in and out of the bowl is in constant flux.  And since placing a lid or layer of plastic wrap over the bowl to trap the air creates an artificial constraint, she just has to come up with a way to solve the problem as it is.

Her conundrum is that she can’t.  She’s not a failure, rather, Classical Statistics in polling has no models or formulas to account for the quarks, or should I say the core basis for decision making by the American public.  Probability and regression theory in statistics is quite sophisticated, and there are numerous models that are attempting to, some with a fairly high degree of success, that can predict the basis of decision making in the voting booth (or envelope in the case of my state, Oregon) within a narrow margin of error.  But since these models continue to look for the majority, they are not measuring what I believe will be the cause of the Black Poll War.

It’s not that they are looking at the wrong data; it is they have failed to make the paradigm shift to be able to analyze the process out of which that data is born.  It does not exist as a majority factor.  It exists as a subpersonal factor.  In quantum statistical reasoning, the function of democratic processes is not one person, one vote.  Using the quark analysis analogy, the democratic process is one person, six isovotes (I know I’ve coined a new term here, but it has parallels in the quantum behavior of quarks that is called “isospin” which is a critical component keeping quarks in a state of symmetry).  Depending on the way each voter processes the information stream to make those decisions those isovotes may or may not be stable through even one election cycle.

The solution is to create a quantum statistical equivalent of the Uncertainty Principle.

Any number of you are saying, “Now wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here, fella.  You promised no more formulas.”  Indeed, I did.  But I am trying to develop a concept that voting in America has undergone a shift of such a dramatic change, it has evolved into virtually a new species of behavior.  It is the equivalent of the transformation from circumnavigating the earth in 80 days into orbiting the planet in 80 minutes.  We made that scientific and technological shift in transportation, from surface vehicles to the International Space Station.  We are in the middle of its evolutionary transformation in our voting behavior.  That is the metamorphosis of our political behavior from voting to isovoting.

Bowling for Votes: Not Your Grandmother’s Bowling Pins

Isovoting, unlike voting, is dynamic and has a meaning assigned to it by the person.  Imagine that an isovote is like a bowling pin.  Since the beginning of the republic, we have assumed that the vote is the triangle shape of the 10 bowling pins.  We have also assumed that the vote triangles could be colored.  The colors used by the television networks of late have been blue for the Democrats, red for the Republicans, and various other preferences for those who were voting independent.  Any color combination of colors could be assigned (I’ve never heard the explanation of why the colors were chosen in that manner, but it might be an interesting footnote in the history of reporting votes.)  Each vote might have an additional attribute or two attached to it, but even if it were envisioned as a 3-dimensional triangular wedge, it was, almost exclusively, solid and predictable.  People voted for one party or another (many states allowed you to go into a voting machine booth and pull a lever therefore choosing in one action all the candidates of that political party).

That is no longer the case.  The solidity of any bloc of votes is now, well, not solid.  We’ll assume for the moment we still have ten pins but peeling back the outer surface of the nice, neat triangular wedge reveals that the ten pins are not standing neatly at attention, but are in a constant state of motion.  Suppose that each pin, as an isovote, has a set of variable characteristics, let’s say:

  1. Size: From a minimum of some volume to a maximum of volume not taken up by all the other isovote pins together
  2. Shape: From classic bowling pin to any other extrudable shape that will fit within the triangular vote box, or even to exceed that volume
  3. Color
  4. Temperature
  5. Motion: From stillness to rapid
  6. Connectivity: From pin to pin, to the surface of the triangular block, and to any other  receptor site outside the block
  7. Meaning: The isovote pin, like a living cell exists within a specific environment, and therefore being part of the human capacity to decide how to vote, has to be capable of receiving information transmitted from the person to the subperson

The characteristics I’ve described above are an analogy of what an isovote is, not a literal suggestion of an anatomical mechanism.  What is important, however, is that the analogy gives the reader a sense of the complexity of what really constitutes the dynamics of voting.  As long as pollsters rely on defining “majority” and “probability” and “margin of error” as their gold standard, no matter how refined their formulas become, they will still lose the Black Poll War.

The basis of voting I’m describing is much like that of the infamous “Schrödinger’s Cat” thought experiment by physicist Erwin Schrödinger in 1935.  Basically it says if you had one thousand cages with solid doors, 500 of which had a live cat and the other 500 had a dead cat, there would be no way to determine which state the cat was in until you opened the door, and the act of opening the door determined if the cat was dead or alive.  Observing what was in the box was what created the certainty of the cat’s state of being, not whether the cat was alive or dead before hand because you could never be certain without opening the door.  This is the basis of the Uncertainty Principle, and since I already presented the formula if the previous post, I can keep my promise not to repeat it here.  You however could not be certain with any degree of accuracy or probability that I would keep that promise.  It is this counterintuitive manner of thinking that makes quantum mechanics so darned frustrating to try and figure out.  But quantum physicists turn out to be right, or able to adjust their theories to simplify the complex wrong part into simpler right parts.

That leads to my concluding point.  The transformation of the vote into a compilation of isovotes is the key to understanding the American Electorate.  The pollsters from now on have to make the assumption that testing for probability and the majority will no longer provide accurate results.  The Uncertainty Principle shows that the isovotes cannot fit the Classical Statistical models for voter behavior.  Like quarks in atoms, isovotes behave in dynamic ways that cannot be predicted with certainty either before or after they are observed, and that the very behavior of the survey taker will have a direct affect on the nature of the isovotes, especially with regard to the person assigning meaning to them, creating a new future for that person’s set of isovotes that did not exist prior to being polled on his or her preferences.

November 2, 2010 will be a very interesting day in the history of the United States.  For one, I will find out if my theory of the Black Poll War is vindicated.  If it is, you can say you read it here first.  If it isn’t, you’ll know I’ll be working on the assumptions of my hypotheses to see if I can be as clever as a quantum physicist and adjust them so they fit the reality of the situation more closely.  Perhaps, I’ll just have to throw out the whole thing and start over.  That is the only way to do good science.

In the meantime, I’m very glad I don’t have to actually count the number of quarks in my bowl of soup.  They are very small and would take many human life times to total them, even if I physically could do it. That, I’ll leave to the quantum physicists and their amazing quark-counting machines.


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!