Not so Random Matter?

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By Mike Cronin

I started out thinking I had several disparate items for this week’s post, but they all seemed to tie together:

It’s science-project season at my son’s school.  He brought home an information/instruction packet.  He had to get a parent to sign the first page – which is a letter to parents explaining that the kid has to do the science work on his own, but parents can help with the non-process portions of the project (e.g. helping the kid get materials) etc., etc. On the reverse of the first page is a progress tracker.  The kid has to get his parents to sign each time he hits a milestone on the project.  My son got dinged on the first milestone because I didn’t sign it.   The first milestone is to have a parent sign the letter to parents.  Yes, that’s right: The purveyors of the science project’s hand-out material failed to notice they are requiring a parent sign the back of a form in order to certify that the parent signed the front of the form…and they make the kid take the hit if the parent doesn’t jump through the hoop.  On a science project. You know, Science?  The subject where they teach kids logic, critical thinking, precision, peer review, attention to detail, right? Little things like that.

Speaking of science, I work in a small office with five other people. All five are scientists and/or engineers. Our office serves as a kind of internal think-tank. We do quantitative and qualitative analysis, among other things. I am the only one in the office who does not have a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM).  My colleagues can run rings around me on any kind of math-based reasoning or problems.  On the other hand, I usually get the better of them when it comes to verbal expression.  I like to tease them that they are all experts at qualitative reasoning, while I am the quality. At any rate, our work sometimes involves (mathematical) models and simulations. Someone in the field once quipped that “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

Given the public’s current fascination with the phenomena of “fake news,” I think an adaptation of the “models” aphorism is apropos as a guidepost for judging the efficacy of anything in the media: “All news is fake, but some news is useful.” Two cases in point:

Some right-wing media sources are reporting that Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of U.N.’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, as much as revealed that the UN’s plans to combat climate change are really a set of blinders to hide the real agenda: the destruction of capitalism. While the UN is no friend of capitalism, context matters, as does the thing that is not being said.  Figueres undeniably advocates for the alteration of the global economy when she says:

“This is the first time in the history of mankind that we are setting ourselves the task of intentionally, within a defined period of time, to change the economic development model that has been reigning for at least 150 years, since the Industrial Revolution,”

Note that she stops short of stating that the current global economic development model that must be changed is capitalism (it isn’t, by the way – it’s a mix of capitalism and controls), or describing what model should obtain.  I would not be surprised to learn that Figueres is indeed anti-capitalist, nor would I be surprised to learn that UN efforts to combat global warming are indeed a smokescreen to hide the destruction of capitalism, but Figueres’s statements fall short of being a smoking gun – more like an eyebrow-raiser. The subject bears watching.

Meanwhile, on the left side of the fake news spectrum, we have the New York Times’ headlines for Friday’s attack at the Louvre in Paris by a “lone wolf” Islamic jihadist. Their first headline read: “Louvre Museum Evacuated after French Soldier Opens Fire.” At best, this headline leads you to believe the incident revolved around the actions of a French soldier. At worst, it leads you to believe a French soldier went nuts and started shooting up the Louvre.  A few hours later, the headline had changed to read: “Assailant Near Louvre Is Shot by French Soldier” Again, the French soldier’s actions seem to be the focus.  As mentioned previously, context matters, and what is not being said matters. What the vaunted New York Times neglected, or purposely refused to highlight in their headlines, was that a man shouting “allahu ackbar!” (i.e. “God is great” in Arabic) and wielding knives attacked some French soldiers and was shot by one of them in response.

It would not do to depart from The Narrative by highlighting yet another attack by a Muslim against Western targets, even as the militant arm of the “tolerant” left is convulsing over President Trumps’ recent “anti-Muslim” immigration restrictions, now would it? Instead, the “Newspaper of Record” felt it must mislead readers with deceptive headlines. I’m not suggesting the Times should have gone with “Islamo-Fascist Nut-Job Takes Knives to a Gun Fight in Paris; Wins Darwin Award Nomination,” but something like “Assailant Shouting in Arabic Shot by Soldier At Louvre” might have hit the right balance between not jumping to conclusions about the attacker’s religion, intentions, and connections, and the response of the soldiers.  All news is fake, some news is useful.

Directing our own Evolution?

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By Mike Cronin

We have global communications and transportation. In Europe, most of the Americas, and most of Asia at least, we have enough food to eat and wondrous technological gadgetry. Anyone labeled “middle class” today lives a far more luxurious lifestyle than royalty did less than a century ago.

Some of our most basic problems, such as bigotry, racism, and other social ills have been at least partially resolved, for at least part of the world.  Will we ever be able to finish the job?

I submit the answer does not lie within the bounds of governments and politicians,  It lies in diminishing the mismatch between the relatively steady pace of evolution and the accelerating rate of technological advancement. Our species may be on the cusp of such an advancement.

Human beings evolved on the plains of Africa.  We were smaller, slower, weaker, and had less effective sensory apparatus than the alpha predators.  We didn’t even have biological “weaponry” (such as fangs, horns, or claws) to defend ourselves.  How did we achieve mastery over lions, leopards, and hyenas?

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From “2001: A Space Odyssey:” A human ancestor learns tool usage

We lived brutal, tribal-centric lives as we evolved higher intelligence. Other animals adapt to their surroundings, humans learned to adapt their surroundings to themselves.  We learned to use fire to cook meat.  Cooking made it easier for our bodies to absorb the protein value of the meat, which allowed our brains to add more neurons per volume than our primate cousins – and other mammals with similar-sized, or even larger, brains than our own.

Other animals can use simple stick and stone tools; humans are the only species that tamed fire.  This started humans down the path of technological advancement. Fire. The wheel. Bronze. Iron. Steel. The lens. Science. Industry. Atomic energy. Space flight. Internet. But while our technology advances faster and faster, human evolution follows at a more leisurely pace…for the moment.

For example: We vilify adults who engage in any kind of sexual activity with minors, but the concept of “minor” is a modern legal distinction, not a biological one.  Girls reach physical maturity well before we consider them to be of sufficient emotional maturity to have children – because adults now live long enough to accumulate much more knowledge and wisdom from the ever-increasing store of knowledge and wisdom available that the gulf between a 25, or 35, or 55 year old man and a 13 year old girl renders a sexual relationship between them abhorrent to us.  But before the advent of civilization and the division of labor, humans that made it to 30 were elderly!  Most people died in their 20s or earlier of disease, tooth decay, or child birth.  It was necessary for a girl who was physically old enough to bear children to start doing so – for the sake of the survival of the clan or tribe.  The modern concept of maturity didn’t enter into it.  Our distant human ancestors didn’t have to worry about homework, getting a job, health insurance, paying the rent, career advancement, global warming, elections, or taxes.  They had to worry about finding food for themselves even as they sought to avoid becoming dinner for a big cat.

ALL humans lived like that as recently as 10,000 years ago – a mere eye-blink in evolutionary timescales, and a few, isolated, human cultures still live that way to this day. Culturally, we have had varying degrees of success in putting aside our physical differences in gender or coloration or belief and living together, but there is still friction, conflict, and in parts of the world, warfare over these differences. It takes enlightenment to put aside the tribalism that defined our social development for untold millennia and behave at a higher level than out stone-age ancestors, who’s DNA still forms the cornerstone of our genetic makeup.

Treating people as property, warring against competitor tribes for resources, superstitions about unseen forces that can literally blow apart a mountain, light up the sky, and move the earth, fear of the unknown – they all come from the same place – from our infancy as a sentient, sapient, speciesSome recent breakthroughs in genetic engineering may have put us on the verge of being able to routinely and casually alter our own DNA – in effect, to design our own evolution.  But we aren’t there yet.

Realizing this about ourselves may herald our transition to “toddlerhood” in the climb up the ladder of species maturity.  I gave thanks on Thursday that I don’t have to worry that my lack of fang or claw will doom me to fall prey to an animal that has them; that in fact I may live to see our species make its first self-directed evolutionary steps – if our scientists can overcome our cavemen!

Nuclear Power, Shaving Cream, and Magnets

By Mike Cronin

Q: How is the nuclear power industry like shaving cream?

A: We’ll get to the answer in a moment, but a little background is in order. According to the video above, the “energy density” from nuclear fission (splitting atoms of heavy radioactive elements, like uranium and plutonium) is a million times greater than from chemical reactions, such as occur with conventional explosives or burning fossil fuels.  A nuclear reactor perhaps the size of your thumb could power your car. Yet there is a huge fear factor with nuclear power because nuclear fission is also the same energy source in atomic weapons, and because of incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.

We needn’t be so fearful.  Check out these facts:

The nuclear energy industry is safer than the coal industry. As of Februray 2013, no one had died due to radiation poisoning from Fukushima.  In fact, despite the deaths that occurred at Chernobyl, the nuclear power industry is the safest of all of the major power generating industries in terms of deaths per terawatt hour generated.  Here’s the breakdown (retrieved from http://www.theenergycollective.com/willem-post/191326/deaths-nuclear-energy-compared-other-causes ):

Energy Source Mortality Rates; Deaths/yr/TWh

Coal – world average, 161

Coal – China, 278

Coal – USA, 15

Oil – 36

Natural Gas – 4

Biofuel/Biomass – 12

Peat – 12

Solar/rooftop – 0.44-0.83

Wind – 0.15

Hydro – world, 0.10

Hydro – world*, 1.4

Nuclear – 0.04

That’s right: even solar and wind energy are more hazardous to workers than nuclear power.

So if nuclear power is safer and more energy-dense than any of these other forms of power, why aren’t we using more of it, and burning less fossil fuels? Cost, mainly.  Because nuclear power scares people, and because a reactor safety failure can lead to radioactive contamination, the industry is heavily regulated and plants are very expensive to build. (By the way, the coal industry releases far more radioactivity into the atmosphere than the nuclear industry!)

But some of that problem is due to the business model followed by the industry.  Power plant reactors are designed to use radioactive uranium or plutonium isotopes in their cores. Very little of the uranium that occurs naturally in the earth is of the required isotope.  The necessary isotope can be made by “enriching” regular uranium through various processes, all of which lead to a very expensive (on par with gold or platinum in price per ounce) final product.  Plutonium doesn’t even occur in nature, but it can be man-made, or “bred,” in nuclear reactors using enriched uranium…for about the same price per ounce.  Both enriched uranium and plutonium can be made “weapons grade” and used to make the cores of atomic bombs. In fact, the weapon industry, inaugurated by the Manhattan Project, gave rise to the power industry as we know it today.

So how is the nuclear power industry like the shaving industry?  Some time ago, Gillette came upon the idea of selling razor handles cheaply, at or below cost, or even giving them away, and charging prices with high profit margins for shaving consumables (disposable blades, creams, and gels).  A perpetual profit engine was born.

Nuclear power companies often work the same way.  They might build a power plant for a utility for little or no profit, but then reap a profit stream via the consumables (enriched uranium and plutonium) end of the business.

There is another business model that might make nuclear power much more palatable to the average customer, if the corporations in the industry could be convinced it would be as profitable.  It involves using a much more widely available radioactive material to generate the fission reaction: thorium. In this model, the thorium would be mixed with fluoride and circulated in the reactor as a molten salt.  The acronym the industry uses for such a system is LFTR (“lifter”). The benefits are worth considering:

Thorium is far more plentiful and far cheaper to obtain than uranium or plutonium

The reactor can’t “runaway” and “melt down” through its own containment – the fuel is already molten, but it’s at ~700 degrees, not the thousands of degrees needed to melt through steel and concrete

The fuel can be used much more efficiently (there would be far less radioactive waste)

A power plant that used it would not be cheap, but it wouldn’t need to cost any more than a standard nuclear plant

The reactor operates at ambient pressures, which means the plant doesn’t need expensive pressure containment “vessels,” such as the ones that failed at Fukushima

There is increasing debate about using the LFTR model in the nuclear power generation industry.  It may or may not be a better system, but to have a chance at replacing the current standard, proponents will have to convince the industry that they can make as much or more profit from LFTR than they can with traditional reactors.  They may get two boosts from unexpected quarters: magnets and China.

Not just any magnets, but strong, rare-earth magnets made from a metal element called neodymium. Neodymium magnets are used in such applications as microphones, speakers, and computer hard drives.  Where thorium may be plentiful and cheap (compared to the desired uranium isotope), neodymium is relatively scarce and expensive…but it is often found in the same geological areas (in other words, a thorium mine might produce some significant quantities of neodymium as well, according to an extended version of the video above). China currently has a corner on the world market for neodymium, and China, and a few other countries, are looking into building LFTR nuclear plants.   Switching the US nuclear power generating paradigm from uranium to thorium might not generate the same kind of profitable consumables stream, but obtaining the neodymium might make up for the loss – and break China’s near-monopoly on neodymium to boot.

Is it a Conspiracy? Who Gains?

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By Mike Cronin

As we saw last week, Occam’s razor is one tool for helping us avoid falling into the trap of believing in every conspiracy theory that comes along.  Another way to evaluate conspiracy theories for credibility is by asking the simple question: Who stands to gain?  In 1998, when Hillary Clinton was First Lady, she alleged that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to besmirch her husband over the Monica Lewisnky scandal.  The political right certainly made every attempt to tarnish her husband for his indiscretion, but that was not a conspiracy, it was simply opposition politics. The right stood to gain by impeaching the president, but it didn’t take any secret cabal to put together a smear campaign; each individual pundit and politician was able to drum up outrage on his own! On the other hand, Mrs. Clinton stood to gain if she could rally support by painting herself as the embattled victim fighting for truth and dignity, so she let fly with the allegation, and it became one of the most often-cited Hillary quotes.  When the president from one party provides his opposition with the ingredients of a scandal, OF COURSE the opposition will take advantage of the opportunity!  That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom!

Like the “vast conspiracy” against the Clintons, sometimes the activity of a conspiracy theory is credible, but the motives and/or competence ascribed to the perpetrators are dubious: The political right is fond of alleging that the left controls the education system and is intentionally dumbing down our kids through Common Core, campus speech codes, revisionist history curricula, etc.  As with the right’s non-conspiratorial opposition to the Clintons, the state of our education system need not be attributed to a conspiracy of the left. Instead, the state of our education system is the accumulated results of long-term government control.  OF COURSE a government-controlled education system is going to promote and advance a pro-government agenda! That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom!

Let’s look at another example:

Some allege that the wars in Iraq (Desert Storm in 1991, Iraqi Freedom beginning in 2003) were all about oil. It is easy to fan that flame, as Dick Chenney (President Bush Sr’s Secretary of Defense, and Bush Jr’s Vice President) was the CEO of Haliburton (a huge company that provides all manner of services to the oil industry) in between the Bushes presidencies. In the sense that the Bush administrations conspired to go to war in order to gain personal control of Iraqi oil, the answer is doubtful, as Iraqi oil remains under Iraqi control. However, there is a more credible context under which “oil” can be held as the reason for the wars: Saddam Hussein took over Kuwait and threatened to invade Saudi Arabia (his forces actually did cross the border at Najaf). That meant he held a significant portion of the world’s oil reserves (and therefore the lifeblood of international commerce) at risk. OF COURSE the Iraq Wars were about oil! That’s not a conspiracy, it’s an axiom…but not the same one some conspiracy theorists would have us believe.

Often, though, the conspiracy theories are just ludicrous. From the 1990s onward, the term “black helicopters” has picked up the connotation among believers that nefarious forces under the auspices of the United Nations patrol the US and engage in clandestine activities designed to bring about a “New World Order.”  IF such forces exist, and IF they used helicopters for transportation, it is highly unlikely they would adopt a “signature” that would defeat their efforts to remain hidden.

“Chemtrails” is another ridiculous theory. Supposedly, “they” are using jet airliners to spray mysterious chemical agents across the nation for unknown purposes.  The evidence: Contrails. Occam’s razor leaves us no guesswork here: The simplest explanation for contrails is that they are CONTRAILS, not weaponized chemical clouds. Who stands to gain?  The charlatans selling “reports” on chemtrails.

Probably one of the looniest has to be the flat earthers.  Yes, there are still people out there who believe the world is flat.  In order to swallow that pill, you have to ignore or evade absolutely proven scientific facts. For example, you have to believe that every photo and bit of video from orbit showing the curvature of the earth has been faked. That would require that all space programs across the globe have conspired to tell the same lie to billions of people since the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957. The real conspiracy here is the one being perpetrated by the theorists themselves in furthering this drivel.

“What is more likely, a complicated scenario that requires tortured logic to arrive at, or the simple explanation?” “Who stands to benefit, the alleged conspirators, or the person alleging the conspiracy?” When you examine a conspiracy theory and ask a few simple questions, OF COURSE you’ll get a much better sense of the theorists’ credibility!

It’s a Conspiracy!

Paranoid Android

By Mike Cronin

Last week I wrote about critical thinking.  This week I thought we might look at an area that is ripe for its practical application: Conspiracy theories.

Some people believe the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by our own government in order to provide the Bush administration a pretext to go to war. Others believe the Apollo moon landings were faked.  Conspiracy theories abound: Aliens at Area 51. JFK’s murder. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. The list keeps growing.

How do we get at the truth? Sometimes we can’t. While the truth may be discoverable, the means of discovery are not always available at the time the conspiracy theory is popular, nor is discovery always worth the price to find out even if the means are available.

On the other hand, we have thinking tools to help us decide whether a given conspiracy theory is plausible. These allow us to dismiss the implausible theories.  One of these tools is called Occam’s razor.  In a nutshell, Occam’s razor says that there is seldom any need to consider complicated answers when simple ones will do.

Let’s take the case of UFOs at Area 51.  The theory generally postulates that aliens crashed on earth near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947 and the US government is holding their bodies and recovered spacecraft at Area 51.  In order to believe that, you have to accept:

  1. Out of all the possible places the aliens could visit in our galaxy, the aliens came here.
  2. The aliens have faster-than-light travel (which our science believes to be impossible) or they can hibernate for hundreds or thousands of years. Either way their technology is fantastically beyond ours.
  3. Their fantastic technological advantage both failed them utterly (because they crashed) and succeeded spectacularly (because their bodies and spaceship survived the crash roughly intact.)
  4. Out of all of the possible places they could have crashed, they wound up hitting rural New Mexico.
  5. Our government bureaucrats have been savvy enough to keep the real truth secret all of this time.

It might be possible…but the “evidence” to support the theory to date amounts to not much more than fuzzy pictures and unverifiable “eye-witness” testimony, while the holes in the theory are powerful. For example: Remember the space shuttle Columbia disaster?  If the aliens’ spacecraft made it through reentry intact, there would have been a huge crater at the impact location like the one near Winslow, Arizona:

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If it broke up during reentry, there would have been debris scattered for hundreds or thousands of miles along the descent path:

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Let’s apply Occam’s razor: It is far more likely that there was never an alien spacecraft crash in 1947 or any other year. Most likely, whatever the government recovered in New Mexico in 1947 was man-made and that whatever goes on at Area 51 now is wholly human activity devoid of alien influence. Why believe that?  Because there is no evidence beyond the circumstantial that intelligent extra-terrestrials have visited earth.

Why does there always seem to be a slate of such conspiracy theories “active” at any given time?   Because conspiracy theories are fun and profitable!  There is no shortage of people who will “investigate” such mysteries and sell their findings in the form of books and special reports. There are others who make and market souvenirs. If the theory gains enough of a following, there will be entire TV shows dedicated to “solving” (i.e. perpetuating) the myth or even movies that popularize various explanations. (For example: there was a movie called Capricorn One that gave credence to the idea that the government could fake a maned Mars landing – which no doubt fueled the Apollo conspiracy). It’s all meant to keep the gravy train on track.

The conspiracy theory-industrial complex is mostly harmless when understood for what it is.  For example: Like most people, I can enjoy a sci-fi mega-flick like Independence Day or its forthcoming sequel Resurgence (which romanticize the idea of aliens at Area 51). However, for me to enjoy such movies, I have to suspend my disbelief (i.e. “ignore” my faculty for critical thinking).

On the other hand, there is a dark side to the conspiracy market. It manifests in at least two ways:

  1. There are an abundance of Americans whose education neglected to cover critical thinking. They cannot “suspend their disbelief” because they don’t have any!
  2. A viable market for conspiracy theories is also fertile ground for politicians to play upon people’s fears: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” (H.L. Mencken)

Random Absurdities, Pt. 2.

 

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By Mike Cronin

It’s OK to kill our (human) enemies, but we dare not name them.  On the other hand, we have no compunction about conducting war against all sorts of things that aren’t enemies: Terrorism is a tactic used by our aforementioned unnamed enemy, but terrorism itself is not an enemy. Drugs are a commodity sold by enemies taking advantage of the risk/reward conditions our drug laws create, but drugs themselves are not an enemy. Poverty is a condition often perpetuated by people who refuse to accept that they are responsible for the choices they make.  Poverty is not an enemy, but the “War on Poverty” often treats the most productive among us as foes.

The “Occupy Wall Street” types who made a stink a few years ago railing against capitalism were often seen wearing name-brand clothing, drinking coffee from famous-brand cafes, and calling and texting each other on smart phones.  How can one accept an anti-capitalist argument from spokes-dudes wading up to their necks in the products, goods, and services created at the hands of some of our most effective capitalists?

Scientifically speaking, anything with a carbon molecule is organic. Virtually all of the food items we eat, with the exception of water, salt, and trace minerals, are organic in the most factual sense possible: they contain carbon atoms and molecules in the structures of carbohydrates and proteins.   The idea that a vegetable or box of cookies or a can of soda might not be legally “organic” when they are factually “organic” is a semantic absurdity fostered by the pipsqueaks of panic.

Ditto for “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs).  Virtually every domesticated food plant and animal produced and consumed today is a result of genetic modification that has been going on since the dawn of agriculture.  Here again, the pipsqueaks are pandering to fear.  It makes no difference to your body if a tomato or grape or a chicken was modified over many generations in the field or one generation in a test tube.  You are going to eat the stuff, draw energy from it, and eliminate it, not blend it into your genetic code. Eating “Franken-food” will not cause you to turn into a shambling mutant!

I am reliably informed that airline pilots for most of the big domestic airlines (American, United, Delta) are paid by the hour, from the time the jet is pushed back from the gate at the departure airport until the door is opened at the arrival airport.  Is it not absurd to incentivize your highest-paid hourly employees to NOT be efficient in an industry with such low profit margins that attention to efficiency is essential for financial success?

The concept of “white privilege” has been instigated as a way to induce guilt in white people for (supposedly) causing, or at least not having to suffer, the woes (real or imagined) of every other demographic. It is a racist concept, and it absurd.  It is racist because it attributes advantage to whites solely on the basis of their skin color.  It ignores the fact that there are many non-white people who attain as many, or more, rewards and advantages in their lives than most whites.  It is absurd when applied to Americans because all of us in the US enjoy far more “privilege” (in the form of better living conditions, more freedom, and more opportunities for some, and sadly, also in the form of government handouts for others) than most people in most countries around the world.  The constant stream of immigrants pouring into this country (legally and illegally) aren’t coming here seeking to be oppressed by the man!

We are supposed to take it for granted that income inequality is a bad thing and accept all kinds of wealth redistribution schemes to help resolve it.  There is never any allowance for the possibility that income inequality might be a direct result of ingenuity inequality or effort inequality. That would mean that people are responsible for their own achievements (or lack thereof).  We can’t have that – it would be absurd!

Putting Polls in their Place

By Mike Cronin

Now that election season is in full swing, we are subject to a constant stream of polls and polling results in the news. Many of these polls are legitimate attempts to gauge public opinion.  But some polls, and/or the results of some polls, are put to use to shape our opinions rather than discover them.  One example I heard recently alleged to be reporting opinions on who had little or no chance of winning the presidency in November.  The polling methods might have been legitimate, but the client who ordered the poll might have had an ulterior motive.  Here’s a possible scenario:

Candidate A, or an organization in favor of Candidate A, orders a legitimate poll from a reputable firm such as Gallup or Quinipiac to find out who people think have the worst chances of getting elected. The poll is taken and the results come back that people don’t think Candidates X, Y, or Z have much chance of getting elected in the fall.  Candidate A’s organization then trumpets these results loudly and often. Had the results been inconclusive, Candidate A’s organization wouldn’t have publicized the poll at all.

Knowing that we are all influenced to some degree or another by peer pressure, the results of the poll could sow discouragement among the supporters of Candidates X, Y, and Z, and even affect the candidates themselves, potentially hastening their departure from the race and reducing the competition against Candidate A.

There are dirtier tricks in the pantheon of polling practices. One such is to use the so-called “push-poll.” A push-poll is not really a poll at all in that it doesn’t seek to find out your opinion, but to change it or reinforce it. You might have received a piece of political junk mail that seems like a poll, but the questions will be highly “loaded” or biased.  Questions from such an artifact might read something like these examples:

“Candidate B wants seniors to lose their Medicare benefits. Do you think we should allow him to get his way?”

“The ABC project will pollute the local wetlands with 10x the current level of toxic substances.  Candidate B receives campaign donations from the company behind the project.  Don’t you think we need campaign finance reform?”

In both examples, the reader is first led to be outraged. The outrage is inherently tied to a candidate, then the respondent is manipulated to respond a certain way. The client of the poll wasn’t trying to find out people’s feelings on Medicare or campaign finance; rather, he or she was trying to sully the competition. A legitimate opinion poll will word the questions in as neutral a way as possible.  For instance, the questions above might be legitimized by rewording them in the following way:

“How do you feel about Medicare?

It should be maintained         Uncertain            It should be abolished”

“What is your opinion on campaign finance?

It needs to be completely reformed       It could use some reforms           It does not need any reforms”

So how can you peek behind the curtain of the polling game? Whenever you are asked to participate in a poll, or you hear polling results, consider these questions and/or look for trouble signals:

Who took the poll?  Was it a reputable polling firm?

Who commissioned the poll? What do they stand to gain or lose from the results?

Was the sample (the group of people taking the poll) drawn at random?  (If not, the poll will results will be biased, and therefore suspect.) Something to consider: most internet or call-in polls may seem to be sampling at random, but they are not. They are surveys of people who are already interested in the topic at hand! Most often, valid polls are accomplished via random digit dialing.

Was the sample size large enough?  (If the total population is, say, “likely voters,” which might be 75 million people, a sampling of ten people is not sufficient to gauge the opinion of the whole, but a sampling of 1000 or 10,000 might be. This is what statisticians get paid the big bucks to figure out.)

Are the questions biased or neutral?

Who is touting the results of the poll? Have they focused on the results of only one question that serves their ends, while ignoring the results of other questions on the same poll?

When you understand how polls can be used and misused, you increase your immunity to being manipulated in ignorance.