I didn’t watch the Republican debate on Tuesday on MSNBC/CNBC even though Fred Thompson made his debut. I caught the first couple of debates but they started becoming insanely boring and repetitive although Republican debates can be quite entertaining purely for the display of ignorance and xenophobia. No one has ever responded to the ‘white boys country club’ choice of candidates yet. Anyway, the candidates alone aren’t responsible for this inanity in the political discussion.
The mainstream media is also largely to blame given its fondness for ridiculous issues like Hillary Clinton’s cleavage or laugh (they love calling it cackle) and Obama’s decision to step away from symbolic patriotism. The networks is also desperately trying to adapt to new media by hosting YouTube debates and offering web interfaces that offer pithy opinions from candidates. But the most ridiculous feature has been the opinion polls that they feature on the websites and report the results as religiously as they would any other scientifically conducted poll. As a survey researcher, I’m terribly offended by the crass use and display of such invalid information so I naturally hold their results with low regard.
But the media finally got an idea of what exactly was wrong with such unscientific opinion polls on the Internet. After the recent debate, CNBC opened a poll on their website asking people to vote for candidates whom they thought won the debate. I’m not even commenting on the ambiguous nature of question that most survey designers veer away from. The result was obvious. Ron Paul who boasts of a strong Internet networking base and has made controversial pronouncements in the debate surged in the poll with over 75%. The folks at CNBC were baffled at not seeing the candidates they love to tout i.e. Guiliani, Romney, or Thompson lead in the poll. CNBC then pulled the poll off its website infuriating many Ron Paul supporters. Was it a correct decision?
Allen Wastler, Managing Editor of CNBC.com even admitted that such polls are “admittedly unscientific and subject to hacking.” But then he went on to blame the Ron Paul supporters for flooding the poll and “ruining the purpose of the poll”. Allen somehow had a misplaced fantasy that Internet polls are a “honest show of hands”. Well, they are and those with an Internet connection and subsequent interest in voting in such polls did raise their hands. You simply didn’t agree with their choice. Allen’s excuse that Ron Paul doesn’t “pull those kind of numbers in any “legit” poll” is inadmissable because in Allen’s own words, Internet polls are not scientific and can be hacked hence are not legit. Would Allen have the same opinion if Guiliani had led the online poll? Probably not.
Even the real-world voting that we indulge has a selection bias in favor of people who chose to exercise their right to vote and yet the results represent the opinions of the entire population. We have lived to accept this fact. So why would you not accept it in case of Internet polls? If you think Internet polls are unscientific and not legit then treat them purely as entertainment and do not tout their results on your television channels. Or put a disclaimer that these opinions are that of the netizens and bloggers in pajamas who are of a different species than real-world humans and have no idea of what the rest of the simple folk not connected to the Internet want. Sarcasm aside, the simple solution would be to scrap them entirely because they do not add anything more than noise in today’s already chaotic political climate.
Finally, I found these words by Allen against Ron Paul supporters voting in the online poll extremely ironic and surprisingly ignorant:
“When a well-organized and committed “few” can throw the results of a
system meant to reflect the sentiments of “the many,” I get a little
Doesn’t that also describe lobbying? Yet we haven’t banned lobbyists off the hill, have we? That also describes modern democracy as it is practiced in most of the ‘civilized’ world today.
Update: John Harwood at CNBC admits that they made a mistaking in taking the poll down.