Pulse Asia for the Nobel Prize
How do you measure the perception of the poor with no access to the internet? How do you measure the perception of the public with no means to judge public officials on the basis of popularity tools like television, newspapers, or radio? How do you measure feelings like fear, angst, or indignation?
In the Philippines, votes are bought according to the highest bidder. How is that as a variable in a popularity poll? No survey can ever be a 100-percent objective instrument of data. No statistical variable measures quality of human perception. Will respondents’ yes mean yes, or a yes to cloud their no because if they answer no they will have to brave the consequences?
In 2013, a pre-election survey was conducted in Cagayan de Oro City. Let us jump to the election results—they overturned the survey results. What happened?
The candidate who won the survey was a long-standing despot. He had completed his full three terms for nine years. And then he ran for vice mayor to circumvent term limitations, as many dirty politicians do. After three years as vice mayor, he ran again for city mayor. This was the subject of the pre-election survey polled by the local Ateneo university.
The incumbent managed public perceptions during his 12 years as local executive by using a combination of radio block time, largesse to media through city hall positions for their relatives, and crony media stations to maintain a culture of “praise” releases. The unspoken message was: Criticisms are unwelcome. That was the stimulus for fear.
Respondents are human beings who navigate in a given political field, but polls fail to measure human reality context. How respondents behave when asked the survey questions is not a factor that appears as input in a numerical data.
For instance, in the aforementioned pre-election survey, interviewers had later shared that they had encountered a consistent cultural behavior among survey respondents. Many were observed to be hesitant in stating their choice between the two leading candidates. Survey science omits the hard fact that those who said they were for one candidate could have said their choice out of fear, when in truth they were for the other candidate. No statistical treatment can record that. Numbers do not count tensions, torment, anguish.
When the election results overturned the survey results, the pollster was vilified in social media. Speculations abounded, mostly imputing malice on the organization. And that, no matter its claim that it has conducted such surveys for decades now, is the disreputable lot that Pulse Asia finds itself in after the 101-percentile rank it assigned to the numbers obtained by the President in its last survey. A new mathematics is born, one for the Nobel (the first; there is no category for mathematics).
The statistical tradition of sociology was born to prove that the study of society was a “real science” like physics and chemistry capable of producing true generalizations and laws using statistical and mathematical sciences.
As early as 1947, the American sociologist Herbert Blumer had already denounced polling science. Blumer contended that “public opinion” was the collective understanding of a topic derived from discussion and debate, not the sum of individual opinions that polling assumed. Remove discussion and debate—and the conditions for public opinion will be artificial.
In 1948, Gallup predicted that the Republican Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman. Which did not happen. Surveys are also driven by commercial enterprise when partisan media (today, paid troll armies) gobble them up to secure their own biases. Poll victory is never complete.
Adolf Hitler was endorsed by 9 to 1 in a poll on his dictatorship. The poll failed to see that opposition to Hitler had actually doubled, that spoiled ballots reached nearly a million. We dismiss fascist movements with a collective delusion that all fascists bring about their own populist following. When the fascist falls, we can then easily say—I wasn’t a part of it. But the last laughter shall be in hell.
On Twitter: @AntonioJMontal2. Email: [email protected]
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.