The Merry Catholic: Who Do the Crowds Say That I Am?

Source: A. Welderson

There is a scene in the 1979 movie China Syndrome, where Jack Lemmon plays an engineer in the control room of a malfunctioning nuclear power plant.  Alarms are blaring, but the engineer is confused because the gauge on the panel shows that there is plenty of water in the reactor to cool the atomic pile.  Then he gives the gauge a good hard rap and the indicator suddenly drops to zero.  The gauge was stuck, and there is actually no water in the reactor.  The glowing core of the reactor is busy melting its way through the earth to China, hence the movie’s name.

The China Syndrome, and the Three Mile Island incident which followed weeks after the movie’s release, effectively killed the nuclear power industry in this country.  Or, at least put it on life support.  Anti-nuclear activists have been scheming to pull the plug on nuclear power ever since.  But the debate on nuclear power is for another time.  This article is about indicators and metrics, and how much to trust them. 

Before the advent of the electronic display all gauges and meters used to monitor temperatures, levels, and the like depended on a mechanical device to communicate with us humans.  Whether a needle spinning on a dial, or a liquid level in a glass tube, or an ink pen drawing a line on a paper strip, a mechanical linkage of some kind was involved.  Mechanical contrivances are all subject to a variety of ills.  They can stick, or bend, or get rusty, or wear out.  This is why you sometimes see people tapping on gauges that fill the instrument panels of airplanes or ships in old movies.  They’re making sure the needle isn’t stuck.  A rap would often free up a sticky linkage.  Not a foolproof remedy, but a quick and easy check.

An indicator which much attention is paid to these days is the opinion poll.  This meter on the dashboard of modern life is intended to measure how people feel about this, that, or the other issue.  People post poll questions on-line to ask which shoes look best or where to vacation.  Corporations craft marketing strategy based upon the results of polls.  And politicians steer policies in large part to reflect what public opinion polls claim to reveal.  In short, there’s a lot riding on where this needle points.

While polls aren’t mechanical devices, there are complex mechanisms lurking behind the face of the dial.  One doesn’t have to be a pollster to appreciate that an improper sample size, an over-represented subgroup, confusingly-worded questions, or a number of other factors can skew poll results one way or the other.  And that’s if the pollster is honestly trying to reflect reality.  The higher the stakes, the greater the temptation to make the gauge produce the desired reading.

Of course, pollsters will complain about the mass movement to cell phones, or the trend for people to let it go to voice mail, or even people lying to just get those annoying survey-takers off their phone.  All of these undoubtedly complicate accurate polling.  But, honestly, a disturbing percentage of poll results nowadays just don’t ring true.  They don’t pass the smell test.

The most spectacular example was the polling before the 2016 election.  Almost all of it predicted a smashing victory for Hilary Clinton.  Which turned out not to be so.  In fact, it was shockingly off the mark.  Not only did Trump win, but he turned states which were assumed to be deep blue red, or at least pink.  The 2016 election was, in effect, a good hard rap to the gauge of polling.  And that meter was found to be firmly stuck pointing left.

Here we are, four years later, and it appears that no one has bothered to service, clean and oil the indicator that is opinion polling.  I wonder why. 

Actually, I don’t wonder.  Polling firms are money making enterprises, and there’s money to be made telling your customers what they want to hear.  Or, telling the public what your customers want it to hear. 

Another indicator, or cluster of indicators, which needs a good hard rap is the news media.  Although, I suspect the networks and newspapers which make up the main stream media are not so much stuck as completely disconnected, their needles replaced with a needle-shaped line painted on the far left-hand side of the dial.  With adjacent red warning lights continually flashing.

This is actually a particularly short-sighted position for pollsters and the media to find themselves in.  No matter how much money is made, or how many people are fooled, the only real value any of these organizations have is their credibility.  How many wrong predictions do pollsters have to make before they are ignored?  How many lies do media outlets have to tell before no one believes them anymore?  I have a feeling we’ll find out.

In that scene from the China Syndrome there were other indicators, other instruments, telling the engineer that something was wrong.  A separate gauge told him the water was low.  There was a disturbing mechanical vibration he could feel and even see in the ripples on the surface of the coffee in his cup.  You can see the bewilderment on his face as he struggles to make sense of this puzzle.  Then, he realizes what must be happening with horror.  That’s what makes the engineer reach out to rap the gauge.

Similarly, in 2016 there were conflicting signs to the official poll results and the lopsided media coverage.  They took the form of lawn signs for Trump, and enormous, enthusiastic crowds at Trump rallies.  Just ripples on the surface according to the experts and talking heads.  Ripples on the surface which implied vigorous churning below.  The democrats chose to ignore the ripples and concentrated instead on the big gauge, which they happen to own.  They hoped everyone else would as well.  Then came the good, hard rap in November.

Now, it’s 2020, and the same gauges that were pointing left last time seem frozen in place like someone drove a nail into the dial so the needles couldn’t go any further right than Barak Obama.  This while cities burn, the Democrats won’t restart the economy, and socialists pull a senile Joe Biden’s strings.  Ripples indeed.  The media is ignoring ripples so strong that they’re sloshing over the rim of the cup.

It has been my experience that you can only rap a sticky gauge so many times before it’s best to call a technician in to replace the darn thing.  Sure, you can just ignore it, since it’s not reflecting reality anyway.  But, why have an unreliable instrument taking up room on the panel and confusing the unwary?