May 19th, 2007

Beware Internet Polls

In general, I distrust polls. But I really distrust those those don’t even pretend to scientific accuracy, as by distinguishing between likely vs. registered voters, screening for people who cannot legally vote, disclosing the margin of error, using neutral language, and so on. The only thing the latter are good for, as Jesse Walker ably explains, is to measure how devoted a following someone has.

This is why, when in 2002 the Modern Library announced its list of the 100 greatest novels and invited online readers to submit their picks, two groups rose up: the Randians and the Scientologists. Where the official top three consisted of Ulysses, The Great Gatsby and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, the people’s house picked Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and Battlefield Earth.

Of course, there’s always some cheating (as in using a single computer to vote multiple times). But as Jesse observes of Ron Paul, who’s been racking up victory after victory in various online polls, “The congressman does well even when the multi-voters are ferreted out.”

The reason for such success, as with the Modern Library survey, is the Internet, which from its inception has been a boon for the marginalized (pornographers being the obvious example). Such people are usually geographically separate, but in a classic display of supply meeting demand, the Web allows them to pool their resources.

The final point is the icing on the cake. As Jesse puts it, those, like Little Green Footballs and Pajamas Media, who have banned Paul from their polls, would do well to “ponder the point of offering a system so easily gamed.” Or, in the case of Fox News host Carl Cameron, who questioned his employer’s text-messaging poll, in which Paul placed a solid second, they might “admit that if the votes for Paul didn’t mean much, the same was true of the remainder of the results.”

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