Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics (11): Polarized Statistics as a Result of Self-Selection

One of the most important things in the design of an opinion survey – and opinion surveys are a common tool in data gathering in the field of human rights – is the definition of the sample of people who will be interviewed. We can only assume that the answers given by the people in the sample are representative of the opinions of the entire population if the sample is a fully random subset of the population – that means that every person in the population should have an equal chance of being part of the survey group.

Unfortunately, many surveys depend on self-selection – people get to decide themselves if they cooperate – and self-selection distorts the randomness of the sample:

Those individuals who are highly motivated to respond, typically individuals who have strong opinions, are overrepresented, and individuals that are indifferent or apathetic are less likely to respond. This often leads to a polarization of responses with extreme perspectives being given a disproportionate weight in the summary. (source)

Self-selection is almost always a problem in online surveys (of the PollDaddy variety), phone-in surveys for television or radio shows, and so-called “red-button” surveys in which people vote with the remote control of their television set. However, it can also occur in more traditional types of surveys. When you survey the population of a brutal dictatorial state (if you get the chance) and ask the people about their freedoms and rights, many will deselect themselves: they will refuse to cooperate with the survey for fear of the consequences.

When we limit ourselves to the effects of self-selection (or self-deselection) in democratic states, we may find that this has something to do with the often ugly and stupid “us-and-them” character of much of contemporary politics. There seems to be less and less room for middle ground, compromise or nuance.

What is Democracy? (16): Strong Man?

Democracy means continuous confrontations between a maximum number of different opinions coming from a maximum number of levels of society, all of which have to be treated equally, with the same respect and attention. We have to listen to and take into consideration every opinion on an equal basis. This confuses, complicates and extends the debates. Debates have many different antagonists and often take a very long time before they reach a conclusion. This introduces an element of slowness and inefficiency. A democracy does not seem to be a very efficient system of decision-taking.

Furthermore, the larger the number of different interests or different groups participating, the more difficult it is to reach a decision which pleases a majority. It often takes much effort, time and complexity to unify different and contradicting interests into a single compromise decision. This again introduces elements of inefficiency. And as if this is not enough, a democracy makes it possible to question a decision over and over again. New arguments have to be taken into account and the debate is open-ended. As a result, decisions change and a feeling of insecurity and instability prevails.

Democracy equals complexity, obscurity, confusion, chaos, slowness, unpredictability, doubt, insecurity and discontinuity. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people long for the relative simplicity, certainty, clarity, invariability, reassuring stability, order and swiftness of the decisions in a dictatorship, where there is only one voice that speaks.

Efficiency, resolve, clarity of vision, firm direction and the ability to do things become the most important values and the equal participation of all has to be sacrificed in order to realize these values. Tyranny becomes less objectionable when people tire of social conflict, struggle, confusion, compromise, insecurity and change resulting from equal democratic participation. To decide once and for all, quickly and in a simple way, to do something and to be active is indeed easier when decisions are made by only one person who must listen to nobody but himself (in most cases it is a him). The decisions of a dictator can be fast, efficient, simple, clear and definitive. He does not have to take other opinions into account, he does not have to consult all layers of the population, he does not have to wait and see which opinion wins the struggle of ideas and he does not have to make compromises. He is master of the situation because he can force people. As a result, he can act and he can develop an image of resolve, forcefulness, decisiveness and efficiency. People may even accept the violations of human rights that result from dictatorial action, if this is the price to pay for clarity, decisiveness etc.

It is true that democracy is sometimes incompatible with simplicity, clarity, speed, steadfastness and continuity. In a democracy, it is sometimes difficult to take fast, efficient, simple and definitive decisions. This is a weakness because swiftness, simplicity, efficiency etc. are important to many people. Insecurity, unpredictability, obscurity, confusion etc. generally cause dissatisfaction and even fear. Every individual tries to avoid obscure, uncertain and unpredictable situations for him or her personally, so why cherish these “values” at the level of society and politics? Only those who want to hide something can make use of them. On the other hand, discussion, equal participation and massive consultation do not have to be an impediment to action as long as decisions are not postponed indefinitely. On the contrary, they are necessary conditions for wise action because a wise decision needs a maximum number of arguments and points of view.

Decisiveness is clearly not the only or most important value. Quality and acceptability are also important. What is the use of having a fast and simple decision if it is a stupid one or if it is unacceptable to the people and therefore thwarted by the people? Acceptability is one of the justifications of democracy because large-scale and equal participation guarantees a large degree of acceptability. Acceptability and easy implementation are therefore also elements of efficiency, just as speed and simplicity. In a democracy, decisions may be more difficult and more time-consuming because of the large number of equal participants and equal interests, but they are also more acceptable and therefore easier to implement and enforce.