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How Many Polls Does it Take?

In modern political life, the position of the pollster is untouchable. Polls are taken and believed, on every conceivable subject. In the war against Iraq, pollsters have been taking the country's temperature on a daily basis.

One of the most remarkable things about these polls is their ability to command trust. It doesn't matter how often they are wrong, or how off the mark the predictions are. Polls continue to be taken, and people continue to believe them.

This entirely misplaced confidence is possible for two basic reasons: First, polling is perceived as a scientific endeavor, and we all know how reliable science is. Whenever a network conducts a phone-in random sample, they will generally fall all over themselves in explaining that this kind of poll is not "scientific."

But consider for a moment what a "scientific" pollster is doing. Two hundred people are interviewed, and we are then told what two hundred million other people think. Because the sample size is so small, any conclusions are extremely dangerous. Now, it is not that induction can tell us nothing, but rather that induction is particularly susceptible to abuse. If one examines 10,000 crows on five continents, and all are black, it is reasonable to conclude that crows are black. But the same process of reasoning is more than a little suspect if it is based on the two crows you saw in the back yard.

If induction can be misused in the area of material facts which have relatively few variables, how much more is there a problem in the realm of changing human opinion, emotional response, convictions, etc.? Because there are so many variables, pollsters try hard to pick a representative sample. But when this is done, they have to anticipate their results. In other words, a representative sample is carefully chosen which tells the pollster that Americans believe the way the pollster thought they did when he selected the sample.

A second reason why pollsters are given credibility has to do with curiosity about the future. A man with a preoccupation or an obsession has very little sales resistance. In this case, it happens that many people are preoccupied with the future -- say, the results of an election, or whether support for the war will continue. Consequently, such people are not discriminating when someone offers to sell them a glimpse of that future.

Fortune tellers gaze at palms and at crystal balls. Astrologers check out the sky and tell you about your day. Polling is simply a device which satisfies the same kind of curiosity. Because of the scientific veneer, someone can satisfy that curiosity without sacrificing intellectual respectability. But there is another consideration which Christians must not forget.

God controls history. As the hymn put it, we do not know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.

DJW


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