| Isn't it remarkable that at the very time when so many of us are baffled by the mixed up state of things - from economy to environment, from unprincipled politicians to wayward celebrities - we have simultaneously become obsessed with tracking our feelings about everything? Perhaps it was inevitable that a society whose texts, Tweets, posts and IMs seem to be volumizing in inverse proportion to the importance of the messages it sends, now demands instant status reports on what it is thinking.
From the inane to the ridiculous, pollsters are dishing data at what appears to be a record pace. The Rasmussen organization, for example, reported: "75 percent of likely voters now say they are at least somewhat angry at the government’s current policies." The Gallup organization informed us: "Holiday travel is more common among wealthier Americans." A CNN poll, conducted with Opinion Research Corporation, revealed that 74percent of Americans believe George Washington told lies during his presidency - although pollsters never asked how on earth respondents came to that conclusion.
These, of course, are findings from the established pollsters, whose output is positively profound compared with the barrage of instant online polls. The Web site PopEater, for instance, claims to have received over a quarter million votes when it asked if news media paid too much attention to Michael Jackson's death, with 77 percent saying yes. Even MSNBC conducts ludicrous online polls including: "Will you watch 'American Idol' without Simon Cowell?" and, "Which is your favorite Sesame Street Muppet?"
Modern scientific polling has been around since George Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1936; soon thereafter FDR became the first U.S. president to use polling to shape policy. In decades that followed, opinion tracking became omnipresent in sales, marketing, education, entertainment - indeed, in almost every facet of our lives. The explosion of instant digital communications in the '90s resulted in a geometric increase in surveying and data collection.
But beyond ease of execution, what really drives this seemingly insatiable thirst for social summarizing? Is it that we know so much and care so deeply that we feel the need to weigh our opinions against the rest of the populace? Or are we largely ill-informed and less confident - to the point of seeking to form our views through constant immersion in the opinions of others?
The major news channels on cable-TV have gradually discarded much of their hard-news coverage in favor of nonstop polling and punditry. This seemed logical, to a point, during the last presidential campaign, when sound bites from the candidates and shifting policy positions cried out for opining. But since the election, cable has continued to ramp up the Group Think. Daily tracking polls of presidential popularity are treated with great reverence by cablecasters, as are the ruminations of bloggers and other semi-authoritative guests who show up on cable with opinions about what is happening almost before it happens.
A small, yet illustrative example of the trend in collective thinking is the practice by many news organizations of charting which online stories are most read and most e-mailed. A story that is popular thus becomes even more popular simply because of its popularity.
Surveys, polls and punditry are now the junk food of the news business. This dovetails with the compulsive desire of a digitally connected generation to trade emotional trivia 24/7. "I'm happy," "I'm sad," "I'm here," "I'm there," "I'm texting." The constant exchange of narrow views may eventually lead to a society that sees less of the big picture, yet at the same time becomes dependent on knowing what others are doing and thinking, minute to minute.
Daniel Yankelovich, a dean among pollsters, once said on PBS that he would be skeptical of any poll on a topic about which most people have not made up their minds. Ask yourself, he advised, if you have made up your own mind. If not, regard the polling data with caution.
It seems so fundamental, yet it's the essence of how the public's perception of polling has changed. The value of surveys and polls is to confirm public opinion, not to form it.
Somewhere in our rush to instantly tabulate and postulate we may have lost sight of that critical piece of data.
© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.