Friday, March 02, 2012

Is There a Right to Data Collection?

What's more socially harmful: politicians not knowing what sound bite will play well or voters being mislead by scurrilous misinformation?

New Hampshire is one state where legislators listened when voters complained about "push-polling" -- the practice of making campaign calls that masquerade as surveys or polls.  Perhaps the most infamous example is George Bush's campaign calling South Carolinians to ask what they think if John McCain were to have fathered an illegitimate black baby.

The gist of M. D. Shear's article, Law Has Polling Firms Leery of Work in New Hampshire" (NYT 1 March 2012) is that pollsters and political consultants are whining that "legitimate" operations are getting gun-shy about polling in New Hampshire for fear of being fined.  Actual surveys won't get done, they suggest, because poorly worded legislation creates too much illegitimate legal liability.

They do not take issue with what the law requires and some even call it well-intentioned. Paragraph 16a of section 664 of Title  53 of New Hampshire statutes requires those who administer push-polls to identify themselves as doing so on behalf of a candidate or issue. In other words, if that's what you are up to, you need to say so.

The problem, they say, is that the law is poorly written -- good intentions gone bad, they suggest.  So, what does the statute actually say?  Not so ambiguous, really.  It says if you call pretending to be taking a survey but really you are spreading information about opposition candidates then you are push-polling:

XVII. "Push-polling" means:
  1. Calling voters on behalf of, in support of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office by telephone; and
  2. Asking questions related to opposing candidates for public office which state, imply, or convey information about the candidates' character, status, or political stance or record; and
  3. Conducting such calling in a manner which is likely to be construed by the voter to be a survey or poll to gather statistical data for entities or organizations which are acting independent of any particular political party, candidate, or interest group.
And so, the question arises: why aren't pollsters themselves taking steps to stamp out the practice?  One supposes the answer is that they still want to use it, even if the "good guys" would not stoop to the level of sleaziness that Bush and Lee Atwater practiced.

Interestingly, one of the objections that the pollsters raised was that "complying with the law by announcing the candidate sponsoring the poll would corrupt the data being gathered."  It's interesting because they don't think that constantly adjusting question wording and techniques that are technically push-polling even if they could stay inside the New Hampshire law would corrupt the data.

But this brings me to my real point.  As a practicing social scientist I am consistently disheartened and often angered at the abuse of survey research engaged in by political parties and organizations.   I receive "surveys" from the DNC, DCCC, Greenpeace, Sierra Club,, etc. etc. that triply insult me:

  • They are, in fact, often push-polls (if gentle ones) whose real purpose is to inform and incite not collect data.
  • They are couched disingenuously in terms of providing me an opportunity for input, to have my voice heard.
  • As research instruments they are almost always C- or worse, violating the most basic tenets of survey construction.

Perhaps I should just humor them and wink since we do both know what's really going on.  Sometimes the political actor in me is content to do so.  But at other times the information order pollution that they represent really gets to me.  These things corrupt the data of other legitimate research efforts. If the results are used, they amplify the error in the information order.  These things undermine social information trust.  They cheapen the very idea of opinion research.  Imagine a certain amount of what passes as clinical trials is really just PR for pharmaceutical companies.  Or imagine that the "high stakes testing" used to study the education system was really just a ploy to indoctrinate children.  Or that marine biologists were just sending a message to the mollusks they study.

As a consultant helping organizations do research I used to ask "are you trying to find out something or are you trying to show something?" To this we could add "or are you just putting on a show?"

There's something disturbing when an industry like political polling can't do better than suggest that the one state that has taken steps to address a real democracy-threatening practice within that industry is somehow "the problem."  A republican pollster whined that the law has “a harmful effect on legitimate survey research and message testing that really impairs our ability to do credible polling,” as if we should care.  It doesn't take a Ph.D. to see that a little ignorance on the part of politicians about attitudes in New Hampshire as the price for stopping a practice that corrupts public deliberation is a tradeoff well worth making.

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