Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Let's Take A Poll - All Who Believe Say, "Amen"

A while back, we spent some time on the issue of consensus, and I made it clear that I am not terribly persuaded by the fact that most or many scientists say this or that. However, the folks who create the news, politicians, lawyers, and others can hardly speak without inserting the latest poll. We are supposed to be especially impressed if 100 Nobel Peace Prize winners agree on something. (Like, when was the last person who ever voted Republican given a Nobel?)

This issue has been coming up fairly frequently in this blog, and I wanted to try and get some kind of understanding on the issue.

We use polling in the US to determine a lot of things. Who will make the best POTUS, Senator, Judge, whether a new law is a good idea or not, whether I will get big $$$$ because you broke my car or my arm, and whether or not you go to jail. Then there are the Public Opinion Polls which give us the truth on any number of subjects.

As we search for the "truth" of any proposition we can never be certain of our own perceptions. We might be color blind, tone deaf, or soulless. We can't be totally positive about our experimental results, because we can't be totally certain whether we have considered every variable. We can't be absolutists with regard to our experience, because too frequently my wife remembers it differently. Thus, we poll.

My wife asks three friends about their recollection to prove her point. We ask the others at the table whether the wine was excellent to them. We try and find more witnesses to an event. We get more experts to weigh in with their opinion about where the economy is going, or what happened in Dallas 25 years ago. We do more experiments and we do papers on what the total of all the experiments seem to say. Then we get a panel of scientists to say that this is now the consensus.

Does any of this change the objective truth. No, in my opinion. A well run experiment that seems to point to the truth does not tell us what is true, except for that experiment at that time with what we know in that moment. And we have a laundry list of experiments that seemed to show "truth" that are now overridden by later experiment. The truth is what it is regardless of our experimental attempts to find it.

Just because every human on earth says something is true doesn't change anything. If the truth is something else, all that opinion won't make it different.

But we need some system to try and find truth, even as elusive as truth seems to be. Thus we have various kinds of evidence and ways to measure the usefulness of that evidence. Some of the ways are very strict rules (e.g. hearsay.) Some are more loosely understood to be superior (eye witness v. circumstantial.)

Taking a poll of laypeople or experts is a kind of evidence which helps us to move toward the truth of any subject, in this layperson's opinion. I think if we took a poll, most people would agree with me on this.


Anonymous said...

"I think if we took a poll, most people would agree with me on this."

So, let me get this straight:

you're defending the logical fallacy of argumentum ad numerum with... an argument ad numerum???

Regarding your post, are you suggesting that polls are better than experiements for finding "the truth"? Or did I misunderstand that?

Regardless, I disagree with far too much in this post.


Anonymous said...

"Like, when was the last person who ever voted Republican given a Nobel?"

1. You're aware that the Nobel prize is not an American thing, right? You also realize that outside the USA, they don't have the "Republican Party" as we do here.

2. Are you certain that no Republican has ever won the Nobel prize, or is this just something that you made up without doing any research into it whatsoever?

3. What in the bloody heck does this have to do with anything??

We use polling in voting because we live in a democratic republic. Science is not a democracy, nor is debate.

"Consensus" is also vastly different from "the truth".

"Taking a poll of laypeople or experts is a kind of evidence which helps us to move toward the truth of any subject, in this layperson's opinion."

Please explain how taking a poll of people's opinions is any kind of evidence for the truthfulness of those opinions.


Anonymous said...

I sort of agree with Kit.

Randy Kirk said...

I was hoping you'd enjoy the humor in my poll of a poll.

I don't think polls are better than experiments. But it seems clear that experiments can't tell us what is "true" either. I would trust most experiments to move us closer to truth than I would polls, but it appears humans consider polls to be evidence (probably universally.)

Nobel prize. I didn't say no Republican (and you rightly suggest I should have said conservative or traditionalist) has ever won. But it is clear that the awards are totally skewed towards liberals and progressives. And it was just a parenthetical piece of exasperation.

We vote in a democracy to determine who the people "believe" or "have faith in" for doing the best job in office, among other things. Right now, scientists are voting for whether they believe man is the major, minor, or not at all cause of GW. Watch as scientist point to who is voting, the variation is value of those votes, etc.

For the best example of how taking a poll helps us to get to truth, I return to the jury system. The evidence and the experiments on that evidence are presented to a panel. The panel votes on which set of evidence is closest to the truth.