A week ago I went into a small town branch of the Royal Bank of Canada with a $500.00 cheque I had received for some translation work. The cheque was in US dollars and I asked the teller to give me $80.00 in Canadian cash, $20.00 in US cash and deposit the rest in my account. (The $20.00 US was to go with a sympathy card for a young sister who was returning home, having just received word of her father’s death.) I received prompt, friendly and efficient service and left without thinking any complicated thoughts about what had just transpired.
Yesterday I had a call from a survey firm asking me to rate different facets of that banking experience on a scale of 1 to 10. I told him I couldn’t do it. I am not a machine, I don’t look at other people as machines and go about mentally rating their performance on a scale of 1 to 10. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.
I believe it was Mark Twin who stated that there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies; and statistics. That being said, I am a strong believer in the usefulness of statistics — when dealing with inanimate objects that can be measured or counted. I took numerous courses in statistics in preparation for writing the Certified Quality Engineer exam. I worked for many years with the practical application of statistical analysis in a manufacturing setting and I am convinced that this is the most effective way of determining what is going on in an industrial process.
We first need to understand some basic principles. The sample to be measured must be chosen completely at random, there is a margin of error to be taken into account in each sample, and one time out of twenty the sample will not be representative of the actual process. In a manufacturing setting, samples are taken at regular intervals. If one sample does not fall within the range established by preceding samples it can mean that the process has changed, or it may be the one time out of twenty when the sample was not truly representative of the process. The way to find out is to immediately take another sample. If this one falls within the limits established by earlier samples it means the former sample was not representative. If measurement of the re-sample gives results close to the former sample it is time to sound the alarm, shut down the process and find out what has changed. Statistical methods have done wonders in tightening tolerances and reducing waste in industrial processes.
Statistical sampling of opinion is fraught with much more complexity. First off, you are dealing with opinions, which are subjective and not amenable to precise measurement. Secondly, it is hard to obtain a truly representative sample, many people might be unavailable or unwilling to participate. Thirdly, there is no way of telling if a one time poll falls on the side of the 19 times out of 20, or the 1 time out of 20. Fourthly, many polls are conducted with leading questions designed to elicit a certain type of response.
For instance, I am sure I could compile impressive looking survey results if I were to phone a few hundred people at random with the following question: “The beautiful flowers of Purple Loosestrife are no longer seen in Saskatchewan. Is this due to: a) global warming; b) excessive herbicide use; c) lack of pollination due to honey bee die back; or 4) a dramatic increase in the number of Canada Geese?” Many people will have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that Purple Loosestrife was deliberately eradicated ten years ago as an invasive species and will pick one of the answers supplied.
The results of such a survey would be rubbish. Yet too many surveys are conducted along similar lines, giving a choice of pre-selected answers on sensitive subjects such as abortion and gay marriage. Then the results are fed back to us as proof of what the majority of Canadians think on this particular topic. The newspapers report the results of these surveys with a slant that indicates that those of us who think otherwise are quite out of step with the times, perhaps even hinting that we are dangerous to the public good.
Such carefully manipulated polls are voices of the zeitgeist, pressuring us to think in the approved manner of our time. Christians should be listening to a different voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit. He will set us free to think soberly and realistically. May we never be ashamed to express those sober and realistic thoughts, they may be a breath of fresh air for someone trapped in the stifling atmosphere of the zeitgeist.
We are men and women, not machines. It should not be possible for a propaganda machine to adjust and fine tune our attitudes as if we were machines.