Consuming Garbage

Many decades ago, I was an undergrad in Northwestern University’s School of Business. Statistics and marketing were mandatory courses. Donald Trump, some years later, was an undergrad at Wharton. The curriculum was much the same. We both were aware of the dangers of using tainted data—surveys asking the wrong or improper questions or focus groups skewed one way, or the other can lead to disastrous results. New coke and the Ford Edsel resulted from avoiding the tough but right questions. Instead, they went with those likely to confirm what you already thought. Everyone in business school has heard the cautionary, “dogs don’t like it story.” The last thing you want to do is fool yourself.

Possibly an awful polling question asked in slightly different versions by several organizations led to the worst foreign policy disaster in memory. In my last post, I referred to the Dispatch article showing how you asked the “should we remain in Afghanistan question,” yield widely differing results. 

 The “Do you approve or disapprove of Biden’s plan to remove the troops from Afghanistan?” is a version of the eternally high polling “Are you in favor of world peace.” “Everyone is for world peace. However, if we add you lose all your freedom to attain it, the results reverse. “Do you think the U.S. should remove all military troops from Afghanistan, or should some U.S. troops remain for counter-terrorism operations?” elicits a some troops’ stay majority.  

We’ve all heard the quality of the data concept, “Garbage in Garbage out.” There’s a variation “Garbage in Gospel out.” The latter applies here. The Bernie Saunders peacenik group has long dominated the left. Add the Trump “America First” bunch, and the Rand Paul “never get involved overseas” libertarians. You have many people emotionally ready to accept and repeat the 70+ percent favor pulling out foolishness.

The question is why “reputable polling operations” would ask the Afghan question in this manner. They have to be aware this is sure to mislead. If a student taking Statistics and marketing is taught this is rotten practice, why would pros make the error? We know polling in the 2020 election was the worst ever. Why leaders would make such an important decision based on a faulty polling question must’ve been because it gave them the desired answer.

Donald Trump especially had to know his claimed pullout support was bogus. If he wanted to know how Americans thought about Afghanistan, he would’ve demanded the right questions. Maybe he wasn’t the great student he claims to have been.

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