Our Preposterous Predilection for Polling, Projecting and Prognosticating

The baseball playoffs are in full swing, and, as is often the case, the experts have been wrong every step of the way. They say no one can beat Team A (Team Y, actually) and—surprise!—Team A loses in the first round. Do their mistakes shame them into contrite silence? Of course not. They’re back making predictions for the next round, and, incredibly, we’re paying attention to them.

The same holds true for politics. The TV talking heads blather on with their insights and analyses, and they claim to know exactly how each election will unfold. When the results prove them absolutely wrong, they go back on the air, unashamed and unapologetic, to tell us why things turned out differently and—that’s right—to tell us what will happen the next time.

Whether it’s sports, politics or the stock market, we seem to want to know what will happen next. And, although the evidence shows the answer to what’s to come is often, “Who knows?” we are convinced someone does. Of course, what predicting is really all about is having an “expert” confirm our hopes and expectations.

These days, those experts are often armed with polling data to buttress their views. The polls also come in handy as scapegoats when the prognostications go awry. Of course, political polling serves almost no real purpose beyond giving the talking heads something to talk about. A 2006 presidential preference poll has almost nothing to do with a 2008 presidential election. Is a war going badly? Let’s take a poll and see if Americans like a war going badly. No, they don’t. Bring on the talking heads!

Newspapers and television networks love to take polls. Then they love to use the polls as their lead stories. In other words, they’re actually creating the stories they’re reporting. And since public opinion is notoriously fickle, the polling results are likely to change next week, so we’ll need another poll to measure that shift.

Election nights have become less about who is actually elected than about the polls, predictions and projections. Networks take great pride in being the first to project a winner in a given state, even with the risk that the projection could be wrong. (As with Al Gore in Florida in 2000; a projection made, we tend to forget, while many of the state’s polling places were an hour away from closing.) Exactly how does “projecting” a winner serve the public interest? What is gained beyond a particular network’s bragging rights?

Movies are deemed to be hits or flops these days based primarily on how they fare compared to box office projections. A film that grosses $200 million is a failure because it was projected to gross $350 million. Then the movie-goers are polled afterwards to see how the picture stacked up against their expectations.

Now we have the phenomenon of projections in all fields being manipulated so you can be called a success if you manage to surpass low expectations. And, of course, you’d like the other guy’s projections to be greater, so his inability to meet them is seen as a failure, even if he beats you. However, you don’t want to manipulate the projections to the point where they would affect the polling artificially, because the predictions of the projected polling might adversely affect the expectations of those being polled or the predictions of—oh, never mind!

The bottom line is this whole process of foretelling the future is completely out of hand. Ironically, I must close with a prediction: it will only get worse.