November 17, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, November 17, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Can pollsters no longer be trusted? A credibility crisis in political news, analysis, and science
In the aftermath of the world shaking events of the last week, at least three professions are reeling. They include pollsters, political scientists, and reporters. First of all, pollsters. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the election, Timothy Egan, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote,
“Finally, all of us in the American family should never trust anyone from the pollster industrial complex, including those at my own newspaper. Never. Read your horoscope; it’s far more likely to be accurate.”Show Full Transcript
Egan may have slightly overstated his case, but probably only slightly, because with rare exceptions the pollsters got the election absolutely wrong, right down to the last minute. Writing at the Wall Street Journal, Ryan Knutson and Aaron Zitner report this,
“Pollsters are rethinking how they operate after a string of astonishing misses around the globe this year—from incorrectly calling the Brexit vote in the U.K., the peace accord with rebels in Colombia and now the U.S. presidential election.”
The reporters continued by explaining that a confluence of issues is making pollsters jobs more difficult.
“People are changing how they communicate, moving from landlines to cellphones and the internet. That makes it harder to generate large random samples.”
“Fewer people are willing to answer surveys.”
And here’s perhaps the most important bottom line. Some of the people who are answering the surveys evidently aren’t telling survey takers the truth. The Wall Street Journal reporters went on to say that the industry’s trade association recently announced it would conduct what they described as a review of the 2016 election in order to better understand what happened. I can only interject at this point that what’s necessary for the pollsters is not so much a professional review as what might be called an autopsy. USA Today’s Nathan Bomey reported,
“For pollsters, the 2016 presidential election will go down as more than an embarrassment — it threatens to spiral into an existential crisis.”
“When the nation was desperate for accurate projections, many pollsters whiffed.”
Similarly, many who are dependent upon the pollster’s data, especially reporters who use the data in analysis and reporting, they also found themselves with egg on their faces. This led to an absolutely amazing public letter from the publisher and the executive editor of the New York Times to the readers of America’s most influential newspaper. Arthur O. Sulzberger, Jr., the Publisher, and Dean Baquet, the Executive Editor, wrote,
“When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity.”
But note the next paragraph,
“After such an erratic and unpredictable election there are inevitable questions: Did Donald Trump’s sheer unconventionality lead us and other news outlets to underestimate his support among American voters?”
The Publisher and Executive Editor at the New York Times felt the need to write this letter to the readers because they did understand that what was revealed was not only an unexpected electoral outcome, but a credibility crisis for their own newspaper. Thus they also wrote,
“As we reflect on the momentous result, and the months of reporting and polling that preceded it, we aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives and life experiences in the stories that we bring to you. It is also to hold power to account, impartially and unflinchingly.”
At this point it’s important to subject these issues to some worldview analysis. One of the first things we see is that when we look at the media, especially the media elite represented for example in a newspaper such as the New York Times, we’re looking at a cast of journalists and editors, and that would include also the publisher of the paper, who reflect actually a very thin slice of the intellectual elites in the United States of America.
Now it’s true that everyone, if not careful, operates in an echo chamber. But what’s really important to understand is that an echo chamber is incompatible with the mission of a paper such as the New York Times. This letter is basically an admission from the paper’s Publisher and Executive Editor that they had operated within an echo chamber of largely liberal opinion and liberal analysis. That’s an important concession for the paper’s Editor and for the Publisher to make.
At the same time, it’s also important for us to understand that the question of polling and reporting on elections isn’t simply a matter of getting the facts straight. Polling, after all, is a difficult enterprise to undertake, and the rise of modern polling points to the dependence of so much of modern society on a regime of data and facts—more on that in just a moment.
But from a worldview analysis, when it comes to electoral decisions, and when it comes to the issue of public opinion, one of the interesting things is that there is a very real question as to whether or not the polls reflect or effect political opinion and also public opinion on contentious issues. So to take the matter of same-sex marriage, for example, polling has indicated a radical change in the way Americans answer the question in an extremely short amount of time. You’re looking at seven years in terms of two very crucial polls. Seven years prior, a vast majority of Americans indicated that they did not support the legalization of same-sex marriage. Just seven years later, some of the very same people in effect answered the question exactly in the opposite way, with the majority saying that they supported the legalization of same-sex marriage. Even those who had been driving the LGBT revolution are hard-pressed to explain how political opinion or moral opinion in this case can shift in just seven years and also amongst the very same people, the very same kind of research cohort. The answer to that has to be that the way Americans understand they are supposed to answer the question in terms of public pressure, in terms of prevailing opinion, even in terms of the worldview of the person asking the question, has an impact on the question, and how it’s asked and answered in the poll, and then how it’s analyzed thereafter.
This also means in terms of an election that polling sometimes drives not only the picture of where the electorate is before the election, but the electoral results. It turns out—political scientists have verified this—that Americans tend to want to end up on the winning team. Some margin of people will actually vote for who they think is the winning candidate in order to be able to say they voted for the winning candidate. And furthermore, when it comes to opinion, we are social animals and the opinion of those around us, real or perceived, often has an effect upon us. That’s why many people in the political sphere understand that being perceived to be ahead in the polls is actually a driver to actually being ahead in the election. Now to state the obvious, the 2016 presidential campaign didn’t turn out that way, but that then raises a huge number of questions. One of them is, of what value are these polls whatsoever if they have now in recent months and years been proved so repeatedly to be disastrously wrong?
You’ll note that story in the Wall Street Journal pointed to three recent humiliations for the polling industry, not just in the United States, but worldwide. One of them had to do several months ago with the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. Even on the eve of that vote, the pollsters said the question would be answered no in terms of Brexit or that it was a very close call. It turned out it wasn’t all that close and the answer was yes. Then also the question of the ratification of the peace treaty in Columbia—again right up to the hours of the election, the press was reporting based upon polling data that the president’s proposal would pass overwhelmingly. Instead, it lost convincingly. And then you take the 2016 American presidential election.
Now, we also need to look at a third class of professionals who found themselves with some embarrassment after the election, and in this case, quite embarrassed because these professionals are political consultants and political scientists. Writing from Denver, a dateline for the New York Times, Julie Turkewitz wrote,
“Just days after Donald J. Trump’s surprise presidential victory, the nation’s professional political forecasters and persuaders — the pollsters, the ad creators, the campaign strategists — gathered in Denver for their annual convention. It was supposed to be a celebration of big data and strategic wizardry for a multibillion-dollar industry that has spent nearly a century packaging political candidates,” she wrote.
“Instead, the conference of the International Association of Political Consultants felt like a therapy session for a business in psychological free fall.”
Sounding remarkably like the iconic introduction at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, one pollster, Chris Anderson, said,
“I need to make sure I state this very clearly so that nobody thinks that I feel otherwise: I got this really wrong. We’re going to continue to learn from Donald Trump how to effectively message, because he can do it really well.”
Helpfully with historical vision, Turkewitz reports,
“The business of political consulting was born, many say, in 1933 when the newspaper writers Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter were hired to defeat Upton Sinclair in his antipoverty bid for governor of California.
“The industry has since evolved into a sophisticated army of data analysts, message crafters and others whose firms turn billions of dollars given to candidates and their surrogates into services. Television advertisements. Email lists. Get-out-the-vote strategies.”
But she writes,
“Over the weekend, 150 or so participants moved between a high-ceilinged conference room at the Westin hotel and other activities, including the reception at the governor’s mansion and a dinner at an adobe fort in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.”
That is what, evidently, these consultants do when they’re at a similar convention. One interesting note at the end of that paragraph,
“Organizers nixed a tour of a marijuana grow house after too many people expressed interest.”
My point in discussing this on The Briefing is not to throw brickbats at these professionals, but rather to understand that there are deep worldview issues that are at stake and are revealed in all of this: the polling, the political science, the political consultants, and of course the reporting in the media as well.
Facts, value, and truth: Are we witnessing the end of truth in America?
But there’s something else that has emerged in the aftermath of the election that might be long-term of even greater worldview significance, and that is that many people are beginning to turn on the questions of truth and fact and data. Here’s the headline from the business section of the New York Times,
“How Data Failed Us in Calling an Election.”
Now that’s the headline, but just consider what’s embedded there. What kind of confidence do we have in something that is called data in which it can be stated that we were let down in terms of trust? Who exactly trusts in data, and what is the data in which we are supposedly trusting? Well, the article makes clear the absolute dependence on so-called big data of so many modern dimensions of life, in so many professions. And it’s not just those related to politics, it’s really those related to anything that affects public opinion and public behavior, and that includes marketers and a consumerist society. In many ways, we are being constantly mined for our data and, in the views of many, we are our data. And that’s where it failed. The data did not actually point to the electoral result, and thus there are many people whose entire jobs if not worldviews were based upon data collection and data analysis who are now wondering, did the data let us down? That’s a very revealing question in the first place.
But there’s something else that comes out of all of this, and that is that at least some people are saying maybe we actually can’t trust facts. Matt Sedensky, writing for the Associated Press, asked this,
“Is this when it ends for that ancient ideal, the truth? Is this where it has come to die, victim of campaigns and conspiracies, politicians and internet trolls and the masses who swallow their rhetoric?
“Rest in peace, honesty?” he asked.
He then cites David Barrett, a political science professor at Villanova University, who said,
“The value of facts in a democracy has taken a beating.”
Now at first glance, this is something of a self-congratulatory statement made by someone who is disappointed in the outcome of the election. But it also points to the fact that the word ‘fact’ these days is actually a matter of contention. When we come to talking about issues of truth, those who operate from a Christian worldview understand that if something is indeed factual, it is true. But we have to note that in our postmodern society, fact and truth are now being differentiated in something of an alarming way, and we need to note this very carefully.
The Christian worldview depends upon the unity of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the so-called transcendentals. But the Christian worldview also affirms the unity of fact and value. This is very, very important, because as we are diagnosing the way modern people think, we have to understand that modernity itself implied a division between fact and value. Something can be true and, on the other hand, did not have anything necessarily to do with how we are to understand values and moralities and so-called social construction. The effective separation of fact and value explains why so many of our neighbors think that morality is simply a matter of opinion rather than a matter of truth. Or to put it another way, as the late professor Alan Bloom did in his famous book “The Closing of the American Mind” back during the 1980s, he pointed out that American college students had come to the place that when they hear a statement of moral fact or of moral truth, they hear it merely as an assertion of emotion or a feeling. Thus to translate that into our contemporary moment, there are people, including many who surround us as our neighbors and our friends, who when they hear us to say we believe homosexuality to be wrong, actually understand us merely to say we don’t like gay people.
Our society has basically been at intellectual war with the idea of objective moral truth for two centuries now. There have been various illustrations along the way. During the 1970s, educators began to shift to a curriculum of what they called values clarification, awakening at least some Americans to the fact that many educators were basing their worldview on the fact that there are no moral truths, only moral values that are relative over time and relative over people in terms of different peoples and different times.
"Post-truth" and 2016: What Oxford's word of the year tells us about society
And then, just as if to make the point very convincingly, yesterday, Time magazine reported that,
“Oxford Dictionaries kicked off ‘word of the year’ season by anointing their pick on Tuesday: post-truth.”
According to Time,
“The word, selected by Oxford’s editors, does not need to be coined in the past year but it does have to capture the English-speaking public’s mood and preoccupations. And that makes this one an apt choice for countries like America and Britain, where people lived through divisive, populist upheavals that often seemed to prize passion above all else—including facts.”
Oxford defines post-truth as this:
“Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
Now once again, I have to say that this is quite condescending and self-serving on the part of the editors of these Oxford Dictionaries. But it’s also revealing in a way that ought to catch our attention.
The word post-truth, according to Oxford, “dates back to at least 1992, but Oxford saw its usage explode by 2,000% this year, based on their ongoing monitoring of how people are using English. Oxford notes that the phrase post-truth politics has [been particularly popular in the 2016 race.]”
Casper Grathwohl who is the president of Oxford Dictionaries, said,
“It’s not surprising that our choice reflects a year dominated by highly-charged political and social discourse. Fueled by the rise of social media as a news source and a growing distrust of facts offered up by the establishment, post-truth as a concept has been finding its linguistic footing for some time.”
And Time says the word post-truth “may become a defining word of our time.”
Now at this point we need to understand that this is really is a big story. But from a Christian worldview perspective it’s a big story not in the way that Time magazine or for that matter Oxford Dictionaries would understand. What Christians must understand is that it is the very intellectual elites who are making this condescending observation now, who created the problem in the first place.
We’ve seen the modern mind go through a phase that was called modernity. In the early modern age there was the claim that our worldview had to be established entirely upon human rationality, upon rational truth and argument. Excluded from that worldview was any kind of supernatural revelation, specifically, the Christian understanding of revelation as found in Holy Scripture. But that modern worldview turned out to be sterile and unsustainable, and it was followed by what was often called the postmodern worldview; and that is the worldview that became so popular on American and European college campuses, especially in the late 60s through the 70s, and reaching a climactic postmodern moment in the 80s and the 90s.
Many people have assumed that postmodernism is now gone because few people talk about it anymore. Actually, the opposite is the truth. Postmodernism is actually so well-established that no one needs to call it by name any longer. The central tenet of postmodernism was that there is no such thing as objective truth, rather that all truth is merely a subjective category. It was the postmodern worldview that basically worshiped at the altar of the separation of fact and value. The postmodernists famously argued that all debates over moral issues are actually disguised form of moral combat. And that moral combat comes down to this: the postmodernists believed that any moral judgment that in any way limited human autonomy and human freedom were the result of socially constructed arguments by the powerful in order to oppress the powerless. That’s why you find the language when it comes to sexual morality of so-called sexual minorities. That’s the very basis of the argument. But you also come to understand that the implication was very clearly a moral relativism. All truth is relative, all truth claims are relativized, and all statements of what might be called traditional or conservative moral judgment are just very well disguised efforts at oppression.
At the high watermark of postmodernism, there was the argument that the author is dead and that it is the reader that has the authority in the equation in terms of reading a text. And furthermore, there was the very straightforward assertion that propositions cannot possibly be true. That is, sentences as we know them cannot possibly actually be statements that are true truth claims. This is why Francis Schaeffer prophetically back in the 1970s was saying that the issue isn’t merely truth, but rather the Christian worldview’s dependence upon what can only now be called true truth. Even by the time Francis Schaeffer was making those arguments in the 1970s, many leading scholars and professors in American and European universities were denying the very existence of truth. Schaeffer rightly retorted that without truth, there is no Christianity. Without truth, there is no knowledge of reality. Without truth there is no basic sanity.
College and university campuses are increasingly out of step with the rest of the nation
And finally, bringing this full circle, we’ve often described on The Briefing how the secular worldview becomes more concentrated the closer you get to the coast, the closer you get to a metropolitan area, and the closer you get to a college campus. That was affirmed overwhelmingly by the Wall Street Journal of the higher education enterprise known as the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In an article entitled “Yes, You’re Right, Colleges Are Liberal Bubbles. Here’s the Data,” The Chronicle documented that even though Donald Trump won the presidential election in terms of the Electoral College, he lost on college campuses, and he lost by a massive landslide. The really interesting thing about this particular article in The Chronicle is that it documents how there were so many dots of intense blue in seas of very clear red. This included such campuses as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Texas at Austin. It also reflects many other colleges and universities where there were radical disparities between the voting patterns on and near the campuses and those of the surrounding counties and states.
So as we can conclude let’s put this all together. We have the failing of the confidence in so-called data. We have confusion over the relationship between data and facts and truth. We have the fact that there are several professions now in the aftermath of the election that find themselves in a crisis over these very issues. We also have the Oxford Dictionaries proposing that the word of the year for 2016 should be post-truth without any acknowledgment that the worldview that led to this crisis in truth was one that was largely spawned on elite college and university campuses. And then we come back to the 2016 election with the data that shows us that indeed college and university campuses are significantly out of step with the rest of the country when it comes to worldview. And this is where Christians must understand that the battle for the mind of the future is the battle that is being fought in college and university campuses and amongst the generations who are populating those very institutions. That battle for minds and that battle for worldviews, that battle for a generation raises that very ominous question: if post-truth is the word for 2016, what comes after a post-truth reality?