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.”

It’s Just Not That Simple, People!


Photo by Dean Hochman, via Flickr

Sometimes I think you guys must get tired of me saying the same things over and over. Like this:

The world isn’t black and white.

I know everyone knows this, but people don’t act like they know it.

I read an article yesterday called “The Rise of American Authoritarianism,” which addressed the bewilderment so many of us feel at seeing how the election has gone this year. Much of the article made sense. Frightening sense.

The problem I had came relatively early on, when the author talked about how social scientists had identified people with “authoritarian” tendencies. They asked four questions about parenting philosophy:

  1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?

  2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?

  3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?

  4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

I wanted to pull my hair out. Really? You’re going to force people to answer that as an “either/or”? I mean, no doubt there are people out there who would choose one or the other. But surely the vast majority of us recognize that good parenting means developing all of those qualities.

I mean, self-reliance is a critical thing to learn, and I’m all for getting kids to understand why a certain choice is necessary in a given situation. (Critical thinking, you know.)

On the other hand, when kids grow up and have, y’know, a BOSS, they’re going to have to do as they’re told, because they’re told to do it. Period. Parents do their children a grave disservice if they never teach them that obedience is, in fact, a vital interpersonal skill.

Likewise, how in the world can you rate “considerate” and “well-behaved” as an either/or? They are, by definition, intimately entwined.

The answer to every one of these questions, in other words, is “both”!

Now, I can’t deny that the conclusions the research drew from these either/or questions predicted people’s likelihood to jump on a certain bandwagon. What I can tell you is that if the researchers had asked me those questions, they would have gotten several earfuls on the topic, and a flat refusal to be boxed into a black and white answer when clearly, it was NOT a question that had one. (I’ve only been “push-polled” once, and I ended up snapping at them that since they were clearly trying to change my mind with half-truths, I was hanging up. Interestingly, I’ve never received another push-poll call. I really wish they’d try again. I’m so much better prepared now.)

We have got to stop treating the world as if it’s black and white! I know it’s a crazy busy world, full of distraction and frantic running from point A to point B, and we’re all desperate for someone to boil down the complexity into terms we can process quickly, without expending lots of mental and emotional energy to discover that there is no simple answer.

But we are leaping joyfully into the maw of people who manipulate us, who seek to whip us into a frenzy by screaming, for example, that Obama’s going to party hearty instead of attending Nancy Reagan’s funeral. (Incidentally, please do click that link.)

It does not speak well of us as human beings.

It especially does not speak well of those of us who claim to be Christians.

We must think critically. We must accept the complexity of the world, in all its exhausting reality, and question everything that seeks to reduce things to black and white.

It is not that simple. It’s never going to be. And the more we try to pretend otherwise, the more angry and nasty our public interactions will be.

I want better than that. Don’t you?