The problem with “yes” and “no”

Photo by quinn.anya, via Flickr

Early last week, we received a fat packet in the mail from Nielsen ratings, asking us to complete their in-depth survey of all things money-related. (And here I thought they were only about TV ratings.)

Late last week, I answered a call which turned out to be a political poll…which I completed.

Now, for quite a while, I’ve been frustrated with the importance the news media gives to polls. Especially during campaign seasons, the attitude is often “X percentage of Y demographic thinks Z; therefore Z is reality.” In the absence of substantive, nuanced, rational debate, we’re left to base our vision of reality upon what everyone else thinks.

Baaa. Baaa. Baaa. (Image by ASPatrick, via Flickr.)

This is not a problem confined to one side of the political spectrum or even to politics in general; it’s a systemic distortion. If 60% of American men like bushy man beards and lamb chops, that says absolutely nothing except that 60% of American men have bad taste.

(That was a joke. Seriously. Chill.)

So, back to my political poll. It asked me to answer “do you approve” questions with “yes” or “no.”

The first few I could answer pretty quickly, but as the poll dug into more and more specific questions, I began to squirm about being forced to answer in absolutes. I had a vague familiarity with the issue in question, but I certainly didn’t know enough about it to be answering the question.

Yet “I am not well enough educated on this issue to have a responsible opinion” is not among the available answers. I had to default to my global opinion on the larger topic. This, then, kicked me into a “here’s what said issue is all about; NOW what do you think?” It seemed, in my extremely limited knowledge of the situation, to be a fairly neutral presentation. But “fairly neutral” or not, I, in my limited understanding, could think of half a dozen complicating factors that might sway my opinion one direction or the other—not one of which was addressed in the summary being read to me by a recording.

Standing there in my kitchen, all I could think was:

“I’m not that well informed, but I’m well enough informed to know there’s a whole lot more to all of this than the information I’ve been given. Which means I really don’t have any business offering an opinion on this.”

But again, what options do I have? Yes, no, or hang up and fail to be counted altogether.

And that’s when it really crystallized for me: not only are polls directing reality as much as they are reacting to it—they’re being based upon the opinions of a whole electorate of people who don’t know enough to HAVE an opinion in the first place.

Now if that doesn’t make you despair of finding any path forward through the sewage pit our democracy has descended into, I don’t know what will.

Because we are being asked to direct public opinion to a yes or no when we don’t have all the facts. And if we had all the facts, they would undoubtedly show that there are weighty arguments to be made on both sides of virtually every issue.

Which means the answer to that “yes or no” question is actually, “Neither.”