Sample Truths

Christopher Beha at Harpers’ Magazine: “…How did we ever come to believe that surveys of this kind could tell us something significant about ourselves?

One version of the story begins in the middle of the seventeenth century, after the Thirty Years’ War left the Holy Roman Empire a patchwork of sovereign territories with uncertain borders, contentious relationships, and varied legal conventions. The resulting “weakness and need for self-definition,” the French researcher Alain Desrosières writes, created a demand among local rulers for “systematic cataloging.” This generally took the form of descriptive reports. Over time the proper methods and parameters of these reports became codified, and thus was born the discipline of Statistik: the systematic study of the attributes of a state.

As Germany was being consolidated in the nineteenth century, “certain officials proposed using the formal, detailed framework of descriptive statistics to present comparisons between the states” by way of tables in which “the countries appeared in rows, and different (literary) elements of the description appeared in columns.” In this way, a single feature, such as population or climate, could be easily removed from its context. Statistics went from being a method for creating a holistic description of one place to what Desrosières calls a “cognitive space of equivalence.” Once this change occurred, it was only a matter of time before the descriptions themselves were put into the language of equivalence, which is to say, numbers.

The development of statistical reasoning was central to the “project of legibility,” as the anthropologist James C. Scott calls it, ushered in by the rise of nation-states. Strong centralized governments, Scott writes in Seeing Like a State, required that local communities be made “legible,” their features abstracted to enable management by distant authorities. In some cases, such “state simplifications” occurred at the level of observation. Cadastral maps, for example, ignored local land-use customs, focusing instead on the points relevant to the state: How big was each plot, and who was responsible for paying taxes on it?

But legibility inevitably requires simplifying the underlying facts, often through coercion. The paradigmatic example here is postrevolutionary France. For administrative purposes, the country was divided into dozens of “departments” of roughly equal size whose boundaries were drawn to break up culturally cohesive regions such as Normandy and Provence. Local dialects were effectively banned, and use of the new, highly rational metric system was required. (As many commentators have noted, this work was a kind of domestic trial run for colonialism.)

One thing these centralized states did not need to make legible was their citizens’ opinions—on the state itself, or anything else for that matter. This was just as true of democratic regimes as authoritarian ones. What eventually helped bring about opinion polling was the rise of consumer capitalism, which created the need for market research.

But expanding the opinion poll beyond questions like “Pepsi or Coke?” required working out a few kinks. As the historian Theodore M. Porter notes, pollsters quickly learned that “logically equivalent forms of the same question produce quite different distributions of responses.” This fact might have led them to doubt the whole undertaking. Instead, they “enforced a strict discipline on employees and respondents,” instructing pollsters to “recite each question with exactly the same wording and in a specified order.” Subjects were then made “to choose one of a small number of packaged statements as the best expression of their opinions.”

This approach has become so familiar that it may be worth noting how odd it is to record people’s opinions on complex matters by asking them to choose among prefabricated options. Yet the method has its advantages. What it sacrifices in accuracy it makes up in pseudoscientific precision and quantifiability. Above all, the results are legible: the easiest way to be sure you understand what a person is telling you is to put your own words in his mouth.

Scott notes a kind of Heisenberg principle to state simplifications: “They frequently have the power to transform the facts they take note of.” This is another advantage to multiple-choice polling. If people are given a narrow range of opinions, they may well think that those are the only options available, and in choosing one, they may well accept it as wholly their own. Even those of us who reject the stricture of these options for ourselves are apt to believe that they fairly represent the opinions of others. One doesn’t have to be a postmodern relativist to suspect that what’s going on here is as much the construction of a reality as the depiction of one….(More)”.