Saturday, November 19, 2005

Very Well Put

Why I am an Atheist. Or, read Penn Jillette's This I Believe essay from 21-Nov-2005.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

No Fruitcake Today

The nature of telephone marketing being what it is, I rarely answer the phone any more if I don't recognize the caller id. Unfortunately, I can't always ignore the phone, and last Saturday was one of those days. I was expecting a phone call from a FedEx driver concerning a missing package, so when the phone rang and the caller id indicated number unknown, I answered just in case it was my expected call. Sadly, it was not, so no fruitcake today.

Now, my wife will do one of two things when this happens to her. Most times she'll just say she's not interested and hang up. I try to do the same, but I really have a hard time doing that if I feel I'm being rude. I'm not saying my wife is rude, mind you, it's just a quirk of my personality that I find it difficult to interrupt someone. I'd rather just not answer the phone in the first place. If it's someone with a long sales pitch, she just might set down the phone and let them talk until they figure out she's not listening and hang up on their own. I've only once done anything like that. I decided to let the guy talk until he hung up on his own, but the first thing out of the guy's mouth was "This credit card will not cost you anything if you never use it." That was, to me, a challenge to find out how many more stupid things he would say before I pointed out just how ridiculous it would be for me to take on a new credit card and never use it. It was a long conversation. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Back to last Saturday. Marketers are one thing, pollsters are completely different, and that's what I had on the other end of the line. They've got a job to do, and I don't envy them that job. For the record, I believe public opinion polls are thoroughly useless as an indicator of public opinion. I come by that belief simply because I understand a little bit more about statistics than the average high-school graduate. I'm no prodigy or anything, I've just studied it more than most. Unfortunately, most pollsters haven't. Most pollsters believe that a poll is as statistically valid as any other, objective, statistical sample, but they are not. Not by a long-shot. Polls require careful crafting in order not to bias the results. They require careful interpretation in order not to read anything into the results that isn't there. Both of these steps require someone skilled both with statistics and psychology, and, to tell you the truth, most pollsters are familiar with neither. What they are familiar with is politics. They know the message that they want to get across with the results of their surveys. They may even sincerely believe that their polls are not biased, and prove exactly what they set out to show. But check the polls two weeks before what promises to be a close election and you'll find each candidates' polls showing them clearly in the lead. Soon forgotten is the fact that the only poll that matters (that's the election, son) shows all prior polls to be far off the mark. So, as I said, I really don't like public opinion polls as an indicator of public opinion.

On the other hand, public opinion polls can affect public opinion, even if it's only to confirm to members of marginalized groups that they are not alone. After thinking about it for about 1.5 seconds (they don't give you much time to think about it), I decided to go ahead and answer this guy's questions. He was polite, which goes a long way with me, well spoken, and at least claimed that his organization, the name of which I can no longer remember, was non-partisan. As a member of a marginalized group, (I am an atheist), it was time for me to represent.

I got the typical questions about what's most important to me in my federal and state representation. I was a bit annoyed that the questions were all multiple choice, and limited choices at that. It's a shame, but probably half of my answers were disallowable because they didn't come from the pre-selected set. "I'm not a Democrat. No, I'm not a Republican, either. I prefer to think for myself. I don't support parties, I support candidates. yada yada yada..." At the same time I understood the rationale behind the limited multiple choice answers. It's that bias thing, again. Eliminate points where interpretation can be subjective in order to ensure that interpretation of the results is objective. Yes/no answers would have been better.

It really wasn't until the last few questions, though, when they collect demographic information, that I really began to get annoyed. Asked my race, I was given no fewer than 10 choices, with the last being other. When asked my religion, however, the question was "Do you consider yourself Catholic, Protestant or Jewish?" Um, that's it? That's not a very comprehensive list there, Chester. Your bias is showing, and it ain't pretty. I proudly answered that I am quite happily an atheist. As if the first question weren't presumptive enough, the next was "How often do you attend church?" By now, the interviewer has realized how stupid these questions are and stumbled through this one, but to his surprise, I answered "once a month." Silence. I think I may have invalidated the entire questionnaire with that answer. So be it. Had the questionnaire been crafted properly, 15 minutes of my day, and of my interrogator's day would not have been wasted.

But at least the package turned up later that day. I love fruitcake.