Surveys, science, and politics

Surveys are valid scientific tools for measuring public opinion.  The truth they tell, however, depends on the questions they ask and the method by which they generate data.  If the questions they ask are vague or favor a particular response, or if the manner in which they choose their respondents is not representative of the population being surveyed, then we say their findings have no truth value.

There is only one recognized way of determining if surveys have any scientific worth.  Those who conduct them must allow independent analysts to inspect their raw data and their methods of sampling, data collection, and analysis.  In the absence of such free and open access, survey organizations can claim no more truth value than the phone surveys that radio and TV programs do.  Like democracy, science yields truths only under conditions of transparency and open debate.

The two leading survey organizations in the country today are the Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Pulse Asia.  SWS is run by Mahar Mangahas, a former professor of economics at the University of the Philippines.  Pulse Asia, on the other hand, is headed by Felipe Miranda, professor and former chair of the department of political science at UP.  Their standing in the academic community is good; they are not fly-by-night pollsters.  Moreover, there are UP professors of unsullied reputations on the boards of both organizations.  Trends MBL, an equally reputable market research firm, conducts the field work for both.

Under ordinary circumstances, the findings of SWS and Pulse Asia would be taken at their face value.  But these are not ordinary times. Our country is engulfed in a political crisis in which key institutions of our society have been drawn in an all-embracing contest of legitimacy.  We have seen churches, universities, professional associations and business organizations taking positions on the current conflict.

Science is a human activity like any; it is bound to be drawn into this conflict.  As they have paying clients, survey organizations like SWS and Pulse Asia acquire a quasi-business identity.  And while they may use scientific procedures and engage academics in their research, their goal of contributing to the fund of human knowledge is overshadowed in time by the more pressing need to supply the information requirements of paying clients and subscribers. Information is an expensive commodity, and indeed no one can oblige those who spend a lot of money to produce it to share it with the general public – unless the money that is used is public money.

In contrast, academic research operates under a different set of rules. Those who conduct research in the name of science must disclose and show their independence from their funding sources.  And indeed, they may often be asked to justify the timing of their inquiry. They must allow members of the scientific community to check their data and validate their conclusions.  SWS allows this access by selling CD-ROM discs containing data sets for some of its current surveys, but Pulse Asia strictly observes a one-year embargo on its raw data.

I used to be a Fellow of the SWS, but I resigned because as an academic, I had a hard time reconciling my obligations as a public intellectual with the policy of secrecy in research.  It is for this same reason that I have declined Pulse Asia’s invitation for me to join them. I have no quarrel with colleagues who use their scientific and academic skills to earn a living working for politicians and business firms.  But when their findings enter the public arena as weapons in political combat, they owe it to the larger community to open their data to scientific scrutiny.

My unsolicited suggestion to SWS and Pulse Asia is this: so long as the research they generate is kept by their clients strictly for their private consumption only, an embargo clause may be justified.  But when the clients themselves release the survey findings to the public to advance their interests, then the reason for the embargo is canceled.  The raw data must then be open to other analysts.  I offer this suggestion on the premise that Mangahas and Miranda value their membership in the social science community and that they are not just guns for hire.

For, I am sure they are aware that it is their standing in the academic and scientific community that, above anything else, confers credibility on their surveys.  A beleaguered president bereft of credibility now desperately hangs on to every piece of “good news” that survey findings might bring.  So long as he is continuously fed the “scientific” confirmation of what he claims to be the unwavering support of the masses, so long will he be nourished by the legitimacy of science. Whether they like it or not, SWS and Pulse Asia are already being thought of unkindly as mercenaries.  I do not think they are.

However, they are caught in a dangerous double bind.  Their prestige as survey organizations derives from the fact that there are scientists and academics among them.  Their clients are drawn to them because of this reputation. On the other hand, their standing as scientists depends on their faithful adherence to scientific standards and canons of scientific behavior. They must allow an independent review of their work.  The data on which they form their conclusions must be accessible to the public.  If their contract with their clients blocks them from doing this, they risk losing their standing in the scientific community.

They must choose between the roles of hired consultants and independent scientists.  They cannot be both.


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