Noah Brier | May 10, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Polling Edition

On polling, Postman, and opinions

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Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business
Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

A book by Neil Postman about the reduction of everything to entertainment.

A few months ago I was doing some research into technology and its effects on culture and decided to read Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Postman was a media theorist at New York University who is most famous for his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, about the reduction of everything to entertainment. Published in 1993, Technopoly “chronicles our transformation into a Technopoly: a society that no longer merely uses technology as a support system but instead is shaped by it—with radical consequences for the meanings of politics, art, education, intelligence, and truth.” It’s a quick read at 240 pages and feels particularly prescient in this modern moment.

Why is this interesting?

I could do a whole book review on Technopoly (and maybe I will at some point), but for now I want to focus in on Postman’s thoughts on polling.Wednesday, on my way home from the airport, I was scrolling Twitter and came across this observation from Zach Weinersmith:

It’s not just Twitter, though, it’s everything: All the company surveys we get asking us how likely we are to recommend a product to a friend, the endless polling we hear about on news networks, and even the “take” culture of ESPN and the like. They all lead us to believe that everyone has fully formed opinions on everything, and if you don’t you’re getting left behind. Postman addressed almost exactly this in his book 25 years ago:

The technique of polling promotes the assumption that an opinion is a thing inside people that can be exactly located and extracted by the pollster’s questions. But there is an alternative point of view, of which we might say, it is what Jefferson had in mind. An opinion is not a momentary thing but a process of thinking, shaped by the continuous acquisition of knowledge and the activity of questioning, discussion, and debate. A question may “invite” an opinion, but it also may modify and recast it; we might better say that people do not exactly “have” opinions but are, rather, involved in “opinioning.” That an opinion is conceived of as a measurable thing falsifies the process by which people, in fact, do their opinioning; and how people do their opinioning goes to the heart of the meaning of a democratic society. Polling tells us nothing about this, and tends to hide the process from our view.

NPS surveys feel like a particularly egregious example of this. For those uninitiated, NPS stands for Net Promoter Score and is a methodology introduced to the world in a 2003 Harvard Business Review article titled “The One Number You Need to Grow”. The argument is that word-of-mouth driven growth is a very efficient way to build a business and the best way to measure that is to ask people “how likely are you to recommend this product or service to a friend?” You’ve surely all been asked to rate everything from your toothpaste to a customer service call on the NPS zero to ten scale.

While it’s been adopted far and wide, there are still some big questions around the methodology. You can dig into those and make your own decisions, but my larger point is that much of the time when I get one of these surveys my answer is “I don’t have an opinion.” Of course that’s not an option, so forced to score something I end up giving it a five. I surely can’t be the only one taking this approach.

In a broader sense, I really like Postman’s definition of “opinioning” and its close to what I think we’re trying to do with this email. In our style guide for guest writers (which I’m happy to share if there’s interest), we point out that “you don’t have to worry too much about a big conclusion as we’re writing for people smart enough to draw their own.” This is writing to think as much as it’s writing to share, and while there’s always some solidifying of thought that comes when words move from brains to pages, it’s better articulated as opinioning than opinion. By recognizing the kinetic nature of ideas, you free up your thinking to be more about exploration than anchoring.

Chart of the Day:

From Pew, a look at the percent of people who say they pray daily vs GDP by country. The US is an outlier amongst wealthy countries. (NRB)

Quick Links:

  • TIL why cats often look like they’re wearing socks: “... scientists have another name for it: piebaldism. It’s the result of a mutation in the KIT gene, which causes an unusual distribution of melanocytes—the cells that give eyes, skin, and hair or fur pigment.” (NRB)

  • I ran into psychologist Chris Argyris when doing research around mental models. He’s most famous for the ladder of inference. Per a recommendation from good Twitter follow Ed Batista, I read his 1977 HBR article on Double Loop Learning and thought this bit about “dilemmas of power” in management was worth a share: “The six presidents identified several crucial ones for them: (1) how to be strong, yet admit the existence of dilemmas; (2) how to behave openly, yet not be controlling; (3) how to advocate and still encourage confrontation of their views; (4) how to respond effectively to subordinates’ anxieties in spite of their own; (5) how to manage fear, yet ask people to overcome their fears and become more open; (6) how to explore the fear of understanding gear; and (7) how to gain credibility for attempts to change their leadership style when they are not comfortable with such a style.” (NRB)

  • Those who try to maintain elite status with an airline  know that it is a never ending treadmill every year. As a lot of the domestic carriers collide toward mediocrity this move from Delta is more than welcome: Fliers who have had a life change can apply for a waiver to keep their status. It’s for those who have a kid, have surgery, have something that alters the course of their travel patterns. Empathy is welcomed in a cutthroat business. (CJN)

  • This explainer video on Bayes theorem from Julia Galef is great. (Julia Galef mentions previous in WITI: 4/30 & 5/1.) (NRB)

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

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