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Sep 24 2012

What Frightens Me

“Romney’s chances of winning are low”
is the message wherever I go
But what keeps me up nights–
Do I only chose sites
That confirm what I already “know”?

Confirmation bias, that’s what frightens me. You see it everywhere, especially the big news/opinion sites. Read about the latest poll and what it means in an article, and then check what the readers have taken away.

Republican commenters will point to one or two outlying polls as “accurate”, and to others as “liberally biased”. I have (no, I won’t dig it up) seen commenters utterly certain that Rove has “put the fix in” in a handful of districts, and really, it only comes down to a handful of districts in a handful of states. I have heard, again and again–and from both sides–”just you wait until November; you’ll see!”

I remember a reporter, back in 1988, who was just gobsmacked that Dukakis had not won. The reporter had been assigned to the Democrat’s campaign, and as such was inside the protective bubble of spin control. Every bit of news was filtered through an environment that heard what it wanted to hear, and refused to hear what it did not, to the point where a supposedly objective newsman fully expected, even in the last weeks, a Dukakis win.

It makes perfect sense that, in an age of information glut, where we simply do not have time to take in all the available information, that we pick and choose what we will read or listen to. And it is perfectly human of us to be biased when we do so. My mother in law fully expects a Romney/Ryan landslide. All the polls she has seen point that way. I find myself visiting Nate Silver’s blog and hoping he’s right.

In my visits to news sites, I see people utterly convinced of the truth of diametrically opposed realities. And it scares me to death.

Not because I see it in them.

But because I don’t always see it in me. And yet, the odds are I am doing the same thing.

Oh, and the “push polls” have started! These are polls that are designed with clearly biased questions, intended to force the respondent to respond favorably to whoever is behind the poll (“given X’s history of mistakes, can he be trusted to…?”). These biased polls are intended to give a picture of support, or of momentum, or of some sort of consensus for a candidate above what the candidate has actually earned. So the polls my mother in law cites, for instance, may well exist, although they may be methodologically suspect.

And since none (or very few) of us have the time or resources to check the methodologies of all of the relevant polls, we all too often trust… the ones that agree with our expectations.

And that frightens me.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Christoph Burschka

    Nate Silver seems fairly impartial and not to report from inside a filter bubble. Still, I worry about unforeseen circumstances like disenfranchising laws.

  2. 2
    Randomfactor

    I do get irrational fears sometimes when faced by “Romney will win in a walk” comments.

    When they come from folks also espousing birtherism (all too common) I realize that NOTHING else they have to say should be taken seriously.

  3. 3
    blogofmyself, writer of papers

    I worry about this too, even more so after Amendment One passed here in NC. Leading up to the vote, I was relatively hopeful that it would be defeated. I didn’t know anyone who was voting for it, my facebook was full of Vote Against messages, and organizations like EqualityNC seemed to be working really hard to get the word out. Then, just a few weeks before voting, a poll came out that showed that around 70% of people were expected to vote in favor of the amendment. I was shocked. Who on earth could be voting for this thing? I realized that I was surrounded by people who thought like me. I live in a relatively liberal town, attend a pretty liberal college, hang out with people who were voting against, and read news from liberal sites. My own confirmation bias made me think that we ever had a fighting chance at defeating it. We lost by over 60%.
    So now when I see friends or bloggers saying that there is no way Romney is going to win, I still worry, because there was no way Amendment One was going to pass either.

    Of course I worry about confirmation bias more generally as well. What if I only believe the things I do because I’m in a insular bubble and never get exposed to truly different ideas in any meaningful way? I think worrying about that keeps me honest to some degree by ensuring that I occasionally branch out and read the ideas of people whom I normally wouldn’t talk to.

  4. 4
    dmcclean

    I’m more worried about what the people in the Romney-has-it-by-a-mile camp will do when he doesn’t. I don’t imagine they will take it as evidence that their confidence was misplaced, not when conspiracy theories are ever so much more fun and less introspective.

  5. 5
    Pierce R. Butler

    While y’all are at it, worry some about voter suppression laws and potentially rigged vote-counting systems too, please.

  6. 6
    baal

    I try to read blogs and other idea sources that aren’t where I prefer to seat myself to limit the amount of confirmation bias / blindness I exhibit. I know it’s a problem for me and I try to avoid it. I can’t scale properly how bad it is for folks who don’t understand the issue.

    fwiw – I’m afraid that the context of overall confusion and lies about the race being close give cover to use diebold machines, voter id laws and the like to just steal it.

    btw – Some of the pro-Romney polls are calling land lines only – no cell phones. Given the ubiquity of cell phones and folks dropping land lines altogether (me), this would skew the polling to older folks and subsequently, Romney.

  7. 7
    oolon

    We had the same problem in the UK, Conservatives always polled lower than Labour. Very annoying and probably why there was such an overwhelmingly positive response to Tony Blair winning. On that note just remember if Romney does lose your happiness will almost certainly be short lived :-)

  8. 8
    dickspringer

    The problem with people who are sure that Romney will win is that they will think the election was stolen when he actually loses.

    We have to take these people seriously because many of them are heavily armed.

  9. 9
    Robofish

    Wildly differing predictions aren’t just down to wishful thinking and the ‘filter bubble’. Another explanation is that many, if not most, of us simply find it hard to understand the way of thinking of those we disagree with politically. I remember, back in 2004, being astonished that Bush had been re-elected. I’d been following the polls and theoretically knew it was likely, but ultimately I just couldn’t believe that a large enough number of people would vote for him; indeed, I found it hard to understand why *anyone* would do so. That wasn’t wishful thinking so much as an inability to comprehend the minds of conservative Americans.

    Since then, I’ve become more open-minded and better at understanding why people who disagree with me hold the views they do, while still disagreeing with them. But in a politically polarised society, there will always be people who can’t quite believe their opponents hold the views they claim to, which leads them to make unlikely predictions like Romney/Obama winning in a landslide.

  10. 10
    david

    US presidential elections are always toss-ups until they’re done. Even then, they’re not always done. Don’t make predictions; don’t take predictions seriously; and near the end, don’t blink or you’ll miss the outcome.

  11. 11
    derrickbillings

    I got one where the last question was “do you favor the President’s plan to have a panel of unelected bureaucrats in Washington making decisions that affect your healthcare?”

    No plan I’ve ever seen, but for purposes of your demographics, yes. Yes I do.

  12. 12
    Cuttlefish

    Nice, Derrick–

    I’ve had pollsters hang up on me after I correct them on their false premises. Occasionally, I have time to ask them (typically, they are working for a paycheck, and are not in bed with the politician they are helping) if they realize that they are being paid to lie to people, and if they really think that what they are doing is in their own best long term interest.

  13. 13
    lcaution

    Worries me too. Especially because Obama’s popular vote lead of about 3% is within the MOE. Apparently, this doesn’t matter because the lead is consistent across time and polls – but it still means that about 50% of the voters in the country think Romney is qualified to be President. He’s a walking case of foot-in-mouth disease who makes Bush 43 seem eloquent. He has no plan, changes his positions twice a day and almost half the country wants him to be President.

    I obviously don’t understand 47% of the country – which is scathe and sad.

  14. 14
    lcaution

    How did scathe come out scathe?

  15. 15
    lcaution

    My spell checker did it again. Scary. Scary. Scary.

  16. 16
    Randomfactor

    I remember, back in 2004, being astonished that Bush had been re-elected.

    I remember listening to right-wing radio on the way home from work election day. They all seemed to assume that Kerry had won and were pretty upset about it, as I recall.

    I thought it would be close, but thought the good guys would pull it out and Shrub would be a one-termer.

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