Opinion polls and statistics

In the previous post and in many aspects of life these days, we get quoted the results of opinion polls. Many of our public policies are strongly influenced by these polls, with politicians paying close attention to them before speaking out.

But while people are inundated with opinion polls, there is still considerable misunderstanding about how they work. Especially during elections, when there are polls practically every day, one often hears people expressing skepticism about polls, saying that they feel the polls are not representative because they, personally, and all the people they know, have never been asked their opinion. Surely, they reason, if so many polls are done, every person should get a shot at answering these surveys? That fact that no pollster has contacted them or their friends and families seem to make the poll results suspect in their eyes, as if the pollsters are using some highly selective group of people to ask and leaving out ‘ordinary’ people.
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The beliefs of Americans

In response to an earlier post about the surprisingly high percentage of Americans who believe in the rapture and other things, there was some skepticism about how reliable the numbers and how they broke down depending on age, etc.

I have not been able to find further documentation to support the figure of 44% who are either certain or think it very likely that the rapture will occur in their lifetimes. But there are other interesting breakdowns.

For example, in this Harris poll from July 6, 2005, 47% do not believe that apes and humans have common ancestry, which is a key tenet of evolution, while 46% believe it. A similar number 45% do not believe plants and animals evolved from other species. So we can pretty much conclude that slightly less than half the population reject pretty much all of evolution.

Curiously, only 22% believe that humans evolved from earlier species, while 64% believe that humans were created directly by God. I am not sure how this squares with the above answers. Maybe people are interpreting the phrases “common ancestry” and “directly created” in ways that are different from me.
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Martin Luther King and non-violence

The main criticism leveled against the non-violence movement led by King (by critics such as those in the Black Power movement) was that it reinforced the stereotype of African-Americans as passive and meek. They argued that changing this perception required African-Americans to separate from whites and forge a more militant identity. King disagreed strongly with this analysis. In an interview, King said that “there is great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance.” He pointed out that anyone who had been involved in the civil rights struggles would know that nonviolent resistance, far from being passive, was a strong, determined, and effective response to injustice.
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Harry Belafonte

I went to the Harry Belafonte talk last night at Strosacker and he lived up to his reputation as a plain speaker who does not shy away from telling it like it is. He again called Bush a terrorist and added “traitor” as well. He also confirmed that the reason he did not speak at Coretta Scott King’s funeral was that he had been disinvited when Bush said that he was attending, and confirmed the story that I wrote about on Monday about the splits in the King family about how to move forward.
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The later Martin Luther King

Some writers are very good at planning ahead for their writing and preparing pieces that coincide with upcoming anniversaries. I am hopeless at this, reacting to events after the fact rather than anticipating them. So, for example, Charles Darwin’s birthday was on February 12 but I completely forgot about it, even though I have been reading and writing about him extensively. Similarly Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday came and went in January without me commenting on it, although he was a person who influenced me tremendously.
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The Harry Belafonte-Coretta Scott King funeral mystery

Harry Belafonte’s talk at Case has been rescheduled for Tuesday, February 28 at 7:00pm at Strosacker. The event is free and open to the public but tickets are required. The tickets issued for the earlier date will be honored at this event.

The original talk was postponed because Belafonte said he had to give a eulogy at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. It is common knowledge that Belafonte’s relationship with Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King was strong and his involvement with them and the civil rights movement has been for more than half a century. (See here for my previous postings on Harry Belafonte.)
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Estimating Civilian Casualties in Iraq

The bombing of the Shia Askariyah shrine in Samarra threatens to lift the existing low-level civil war in Iraq to the status of a major one. Already, the level of deaths has risen dramatically. Which again raises the question of how little we know (or even seem to care) about the level of Iraqi deaths since the US attack on that country in March 2003.
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The state of literacy in the US

The government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is an invaluable source of information about the state of education in the US. Among other things, it periodically measures the state of literacy and determines what percentage of the population falls into four categories: below basic, basic, intermediate and proficient. These levels are defined (with samples of abilities and skill sets) are given below:

Below Basic indicates no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills.

Key abilities
• locating easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose texts
• locating easily identifiable information and following written instructions in simple documents (e.g., charts or forms)
• locating numbers and using them to perform simple quantitative operations (primarily addition) when the mathematical information is very concrete and familiar

Sample tasks typical of level
• searching a short, simple text to find out what a patient is allowed to drink before a medical test
• signing a form
• adding the amounts on a bank deposit slip

Basic indicates skills necessary to perform simple and everyday literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding information in short, commonplace prose texts
• reading and understanding information in simple documents
• locating easily identifiable quantitative information and using it to solve simple, one-step problems when the arithmetic operation is specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• finding in a pamphlet for prospective jurors an explanation of how people were selected for the jury pool
• using a television guide to find out what programs are on at a specific time
• comparing the ticket prices for two events

Intermediate indicates skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading and understanding moderately dense, less commonplace prose texts as well as summarizing, making simple inferences, determining cause and effect, and recognizing the author’s purpose
• locating information in dense, complex documents and making simple inferences about the information
• locating less familiar quantitative information and using it to solve problems when the arithmetic operation is not specified or easily inferred

Sample tasks typical of level
• consulting reference materials to determine which foods contain a particular vitamin
• identifying a specific location on a map
• calculating the total cost of ordering specific office supplies from a catalog

Proficient indicates skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities.

Key abilities
• reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences
• integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces of information located in complex documents
• locating more abstract quantitative information and using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic operations are not easily inferred and the problems are more complex

Sample tasks typical of level
• comparing viewpoints in two editorials
• interpreting a table about blood pressure, age, and physical activity
• computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items

The 2003 results can be found on page 4 of the NCES document.

For prose literacy, the population breaks up as 14% below basic, 29% basic, 44% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For documents literacy, 12% are below basic, 22% basic, 53% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

For quantitative literacy, 22% are below basic, 33% basic, 33% intermediate, and 13% proficient.

It does not surprise me that the literacy levels go down for quantitative skills. What does surprise me is that the bars are set so low. Maybe I am living in a dream world (after all, I do work in a university!) but it seems like the tasks required of people at the proficient level are the minimal ones needed to function effectively in modern society, if you are to have a sense that one is aware of what is going on around.

For example, last week I was preparing my tax returns and it seemed to me that to be able to do them requires proficiency level (at least as far as prose and document literacy went), since there was a lot of “if-then’ reasoning involved. And my taxes are fairly simple since my finances are straightforward, as is the case for most people whose income comes mainly in the form of salary or wages.

To think that only 13% reach proficiency level in all three categories is troubling. How do the rest even do their taxes, let alone make sense of the complexities of the modern world?

The Death of Conservativism

In a previous post, I wrote about how political language has been abused and how words have either lost their meaning through misuse or whose meaning is deliberately kept vague so that they can be used as political weapons.

Glenn Greenwald (over at Unclaimed Territory) points out how this process of distortion is in full swing currently over the labels “liberal” and “conservative.” And in the process, he points put that conservatism, as a recognizable political ideology, is dead in America, killed by the very people who currently proudly claim themselves to be conservatives. I am excerpting some key passages from his long essay on this act of ideological suicide but you really should read the whole thing, with its links to supporting examples..

It used to be the case that in order to be considered a “liberal” or someone “of the Left,” one had to actually ascribe to liberal views on the important policy issues of the day – social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, “judicial activism,” hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies, etc. etc. These days, to be a “liberal,” such views are no longer necessary.

Now, in order to be considered a “liberal,” only one thing is required – a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush. The minute one criticizes him is the minute that one becomes a “liberal,” regardless of the ground on which the criticism is based. And the more one criticizes him, by definition, the more “liberal” one is. Whether one is a “liberal” – or, for that matter, a “conservative” – is now no longer a function of one’s actual political views, but is a function purely of one’s personal loyalty to George Bush.

. . .
People who self-identify as “conservatives” and have always been considered to be conservatives become liberal heathens the moment they dissent, even on the most non-ideological grounds, from a Bush decree. That’s because “conservatism” is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as “liberal” is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government.

. . .
As much as any policy prescriptions, conservatism has always been based, more than anything else, on a fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government and a corresponding belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible, particularly when it comes to its application by the Government to American citizens. It was that deeply rooted distrust that led to conservatives’ vigorous advocacy of states’ rights over centralized power in the federal government, accompanied by demands that the intrusion of the Federal Government in the lives of American citizens be minimized.

Is there anything more antithetical to that ethos than the rabid, power-hungry appetites of Bush followers? There is not an iota of distrust of the Federal Government among them. Quite the contrary. Whereas distrust of the government was quite recently a hallmark of conservatism, expressing distrust of George Bush and the expansive governmental powers he is pursuing subjects one to accusations of being a leftist, subversive loon.

. . .
And what I hear, first and foremost, from these Bush following corners is this, in quite a shrieking tone: “Oh, my God – there are all of these evil people trying to kill us, George Bush is doing what he can to save us, and these liberals don’t even care!!! They’re on their side and they deserve the same fate!!!” It doesn’t even sound like political argument; it sounds like a form of highly emotional mass theater masquerading as political debate. It really sounds like a personality cult. It is impervious to reasoned argument and the only attribute is loyalty to the leader. Whatever it is, it isn’t conservative.

. . .
A movement which has as its shining lights a woman who advocates the death of her political opponents, another woman who is a proponent of concentration camps, a magazine which advocates the imprisonment of journalists who expose government actions of dubious legality, all topped off by a President who believes he has the power to secretly engage in activities which the American people, through their Congress, have made it a crime to engage in, is a movement motivated by lots of different things. Political ideology isn’t one of them.

This happens to ideologies. Initially they are about ideas, about the principles around which societies should be organized and about how to govern. But when people with a strong sense of ideology get into power, they find that trying to attain their goals takes longer and is more difficult than they anticipated because most people are not strongly ideological and resist being forced to conform to a rigid mold. So then the focus shifts to cutting corners on honesty and ethical and even legal behavior, doing anything to silence their critics and stay in power for as long as they can so that they can attain their goals by whatever means necessary. And in the process, the principles of the very ideology that initially drove them become sacrificed.

When that happens, the original followers of that ideology have a choice to make. Either they stay with their original principles and become critics of those in power or they abandon the principles and become instead power cultists, slavishly and uncritically following the dear leader.

A good test to gauge this thinking is to ask such people if there is anything, anything at all, about the leader’s actions that they find objectionable. The signs of cult-like behavior are when those people cannot find anything about the leader’s policies to criticize or when they do criticize, point to trivialities (“I wish he would make better speeches”) or say that the leader should be even more extreme. (“There should be warrantless wiretapping of everyone!”, “We need to invade more countries!”, “We should torture not just suspects but their families as well!”, “We need to put all foreigners in internment camps, not just Muslims!”) Such statements are not really criticisms. They are in reality a form of pandering, because they enable the leader to claim the mantle of moderation while pursuing extreme measures.

When this kind of thing happens on a large scale, it signals the impending death of the ideology. It is what we currently see happening in the US for the movement formerly known as conservative.

Greenwald’s essay seemed to have touched a nerve, with many “conservatives” trying to deny the existence of a Bush cult and to discredit his main point that conservatism these days is measured by the degree of blind allegiance to whatever Bush does. He has responded to those arguments in this post.

Why is ice slippery?

I have been meaning to write about this for some time but got sidetracked by all the other topics. It formed the basis of an article by Robert Rosenberg in the December 2005 issue of Physics Today (pages 50-55).

How people respond to such a question can tell you a lot about their relationship to science in general. Some people will think that such an everyday question should have a simple answer that has been known for a long time. Others will answer that that is just the way ice is. Intelligent design and other types of creationists might respond that ice was made slippery for a purpose that we cannot comprehend. Yet others will say “who cares?” and wonder why we should bother with trying to answer such a question at all. But ask a group of scientifically-minded people this question and you will get a lively discussion going about the various possible explanations.
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