Friday, March 25, 2011

Appeal to Fear

Have you ever taken the time to participate in one of those political phone surveys? I usually don’t. I have too many things going on, someplace I needed to be or a child that needed me.  And so I always wondered how accurate those surveys were. After all, busy people didn’t have time.

But a month or two ago, on a quiet evening when everyone was gone, I got one of those phone calls. And instead of saying “no,” I thought that I’d like to have my voice heard. So I participated. And it started out normal enough. The first question was whether I approved of the way that the President was governing. Talk about your opened-end question. Um, on which issue? It seemed to be a popularity question. But that’s what politics has become. So I answered the question.

And after a couple more questions like that, things got a bit surreal. My favorite question (to the best of my ability to remember it) was “Don’t you think that it’s unfair that the city is forcing police officers who live outside the county to leave their vehicles at the county line?” Talk about your leading questions. Talk about swaying opinions by the way questions are phrased. I had a year of stats in college and my prof’s favorite exercise was to bring in front-page-of-the-newspaper scientific studies and show us why the results were meaningless because the statistical formulas used had no bearing on the studies’s data. While this wasn’t “scientific,” I’m sure he would have had a field day with this poll.

Again the pollster pushed me on the question. I said, “You know, I really don’t know enough about the issue to answer the question.” Nothing had been in the newspaper about the issue. As it turns out, the city no longer wants to pay for the gas, etc., for policemen who live outside of the county (it’s a large county) to drive their vehicles home. Now maybe there’s a good reason for them to drive their vehicles home, but I don’t know what it is. The police weren’t willing to make their case in the press. And I can certainly understand why the county doesn’t want to pay for the gas for a police officer who chooses to live a long way away. And unlike the mental image created by the pollster, there probably wouldn’t be scores of abandoned police cars lining the county line.

At the end of the poll, it was obvious that the police department and the mayor were skirmishing. Since then, it’s turned in a full-blown war. Nasty, name-calling billboards, where the police threaten that they won’t deal with gang violence unless the mayor gives them what they want. Um, hello, what happened to “Protect and Serve?” Maybe the police have a good reason for their anger, but punishing the citizens isn’t the way to go. And when the newspaper tried to talk to the police chief about the billboards, he refused to comment.

Perhaps someone needs a lesson in logic. My son Matthew is taking logic right now, and this whole fiasco had been an excellent example of ad hominen abusive, irrelevant goals and functions, and argumentum ad baculum (appeal to fear).

At this point, I’d really like the police chief and the mayor to write some editorials because I’d sure like to know what’s going on. In the meantime, Matt’s learning about politics and putting his logic skills to good use. 


  1. "So what do you think about the issue with the magnetic polararity within the core that is affecting America and causing all butchers and clerks to become crazy mass murderers?"
    "Wait.. what?!"
    "So you don't agree?"
    "What? No."
    "Ah. Good. Next question."

  2. I can't believe what the city asks of its workers sometimes. That's outrageous.

  3. This is one of my pet peeves: not understanding statistics or scientific research. I feel like that should be a core class for high school or college students. The book "How to Lie with Statistics" by Darrell Huff is required reading for my kids. The examples are dated, but it teaches the concepts.

    My husband was in the audit dept., and was extremely frustrated by the lack of understanding of how accurate stats are gathered and reported.

  4. I've never been asked to do a poll. You just wonder if the questions themselves are biased so it might color everything.

  5. I hated statistics in worst class EVER.

    Also, I do NOT answer those calls. (thanks goodness for caller ID) I hates 'em, precious. And I hate politics.

    Happy weekend. :)


  6. For us old people on Social Security, faulty statistics hurt the pocketbook. For the past couple of years the govt. has assured us there is no no increase in benefits. So, why does our food bill jump higher and higher, or why are we paying through-the-nose to put gas in our cars? Oh, they don't count those things in their stats. I guess food, heat & gasoline are frivolous expenses.

  7. Statistics, huh. You can make statistics say what you want them to say. The trick is to know how to do it. Of course, sometimes the statistics are downright lies.

  8. Nothing to do with your present post, Connie, but I do hope you'll look at the last post on my blog, thought it might be useful when I read your 'about me'. Kind regards, Carole.

  9. Big Brother never took logic lessons. Now he throws red herrings for a job.

  10. Hate those calls. My stock answer is "I've just been released from prison for my felony charge and would love to vote for your candidate." They usually hang up.

  11. Nick,
    I love that! I have to admit that I'm not above using the "I have an autistic child (which is true) and I don't have time for your call." This works very well with telemarketers--they never call back.

  12. You could just start speaking in Dutch...and hope they don't have a clue.

  13. I could start speaking to them in Dwarven. Then they'd really hang up.

  14. Great post-- really amazing. I would say that's a pretty unethical survey. I teach our research methods class, and I really try to focus on statistical literacy. A great book on the topic is Damned Lies and Statistics by Joel Best.