Technical Notes
Technical Abbreviations Database
TN0011: Ignore Polls!
Don't listen to them. They're bad. Why? Well, it's Schopenhauer and Huff at work at the same time.
Years ago, I read Darell Huff's book. A few weeks ago, I read Schopenhauer. And yesterday, it hit me.
Darell Huff
Polls are just a form of statistics. Here's what Darell Huff wrote in 1954 in his famous book "How to Lie with Statistics", chapter 3 "The Little Figures That Are Not There":
Users report 23% fewer cavities with Doakes' tooth paste, the big type says. You could do with twenty-three per cent fewer aches so you read on. These results, you find, come from a reassuringly "independent" laboratory, and the account is certified by a certified public accountant. What more do you want?
But let's get back to how easy it is for Doakes to get a headline without a falsehood in it and everything certified at that. Let any small group of persons keep count of cavities for six months, then switch to Doakes'. One of three things is bound to happen: distinctly more cavities, distinctly fewer, or about the same number. If the first or last of these possibilities occurs, Doakes & Company files the figures (well out of sight somewhere) and tries again. Sooner or later, by the operation of chance, a test group is going to show a big improvement worthy of a headline and perhaps a whole advertising campaign. This will happen whether they adopt Doakes' or baking soda or just keep on using their same old dentifrice.

This explains how there can be so many polls about the same subject with totally different results.
Arthur Schopenhauer
People feel most comfortable, when they have the impression to be part of the majority. The following quote is from Schopenhauer's widely known work "Die Kunst, Recht zu behalten" ("The Art of Controversy", a bilingual version is available on the web at http://muse.addr.com/art-of-controversy/erist30.htm):
[Original German Quote:]
Kunstgriff 30:
Das argumentum ad verecundiam [an die Ehrfurcht gerichtetes Argument]. Statt der Gründe brauche man Autoritäten nach Maßgabe der Kenntnisse des Gegners.
Auch sind allgemeine Vorurteile als Autoritäten zu gebrauchen. Denn die meisten denken mit Aristoteles a men pollois dokei tavta ge einai famen [was vielen richtig scheint, das - sagen wir - ist; Nikomachische Ethik, X, 2, 1172b36]: ja, es gibt keine noch so absurde Meinung, die die Menschen nicht leicht zu der ihrigen machten, sobald man es dahin gebracht hat, sie zu überreden, daß solche allgemein angenommen sei. Das Beispiel wirkt auf ihr Denken, wie auf ihr Tun. Sie sind Schafe, die dem Leithammel nachgehen, wohin er auch führt: es ist ihnen leichter zu sterben als zu denken. Es ist sehr seltsam, daß die Allgemeinheit einer Meinung so viel Gewicht bei ihnen hat, da sie doch an sich selbst sehn können, wie ganz ohne Urteil und bloß kraft des Beispiels man Meinungen annimmt. Aber das sehn sie nicht, weil alle Selbstkenntnis ihnen abgeht.

[Translated Quote:]
Stratagem XXX:
This is the argumentum ad verecundiam. It consists in making an appeal to authority rather than reason, and in using such an authority as may suit the degree of knowledge possessed by your opponent.
A universal prejudice may also be used as an authority; for most people think with Aristotle that that may be said to exist which many believe. There is no opinion, however absurd, which men will not readily embrace as soon as they can be brought to the conviction that it is generally adopted. Example affects their thought, just as it affects their action. They are like sheep following the bell-wether just as he leads them. They would sooner die than think. It is very curious that the universality of an opinion should have so much weight with people, as their own experience might tell them that its acceptance is an entirely thoughtless and merely imitative process. But it tells them nothing of the kind, because they possess no self-knowledge whatever.

Polls, as used in mass media today, work in the same way: On a subliminal level they influence people towards the position of the perceived majority.
Document History
First Version: October 10, 2002

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