The reality of surveys

A lot of nonsense is being uttered in response to a recent Pulse Asia finding which shows that forty-two percent of the respondents in the October 2007 Ulat ng Bayan survey consider Gloria Macapagal Arroyo “the most corrupt president in Philippine history.”  Instead of disputing the scientific adequacy of the survey, defenders of Ms Arroyo have chosen to argue from outside science in order to impugn the validity of the Pulse Asia report.

One such defender, Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, wants all survey firms investigated in order to compel them to reveal their funding sources, as if doing so would automatically erase their legitimacy as scientific outfits.  She thinks that, like most everything in Philippine politics today, all surveys are for sale.  While there may indeed be flyby-night survey firms that deliver made-to-order findings especially during election time, this fact does not negate the reality of surveys as scientific instruments for measuring public opinion.  Nor does it rule out the existence of survey firms that take their tasks seriously and willingly submit their work to the scrutiny of a larger scientific community.

The ultimate determinant of a survey firm’s longevity is its ability to report the state of public perception as it measures it and not as the survey sponsor would like it to be.  Serious polling organizations are not in the business of massaging egos or creating illusions.  If they were, they would run out of clients who require objective information to guide their actions.

Another protector of the President, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita, has come up with a theory. He says: “There is such a thing as determining the source to find out what the product is.  So if that premise is correct then you can imagine to what extent we must give credence to the survey.”  He then suggests that the survey could be part of a destabilization effort.  If Sec. Ermita’s theory is true, then no science is possible.  Every scientific effort would reflect the prejudices of public or private funding agencies.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye took a technical track that could have led him to something closer to a valid critique.  “We therefore vehemently challenge the survey results, which could have been influenced by a number of distorting factors such as the sample, possible leading questions and even the person or persons who commissioned the survey.” That is a mouthful of assertions.  Sec. Bunye would need the assistance of someone trained in statistics and survey research to make this line stick, someone who could explain to him the rationality of probability sampling and questionnaire construction.

The Inquirer editorial the other day has already referred to these lapses in logic.  But let me press the argument further and say something about the “perception vs. reality” line of defense. Presidential Management Staff chief Serge Remonde was the chief bearer of this impoverished argument.  He said that the judgment of “most corrupt president” was just a perception and was “far from reality.”  I suppose Sec. Remonde expects us to take his perception of Ms Arroyo as reality itself.

Of course, the Pulse Asia survey measured nothing but public perception.  Perception is our only access, as human beings, to the reality of the social and natural worlds.  We have no direct knowledge of the reality of the world “as it really is” against which we might compare our perceptions.  We can only compare perception with perception, because what we call reality is indeed just another perception.

This is not to say that therefore all perceptions carry the same weight. What we learn in everyday life is that there are some perceptions we take as truths either because we trust their sources or because they are affirmed in our own encounters with the world, and there are others we dismiss as fantasies because our experience does not support them.   This is not as simple as it may sound.  Indeed, sociologists spend a lot of time uncovering the many hidden factors that shape our notions of truth and of fantasy.

But it is fascinating that even when we are told of the existence of hidden hands that direct and control the operations of survey firms and the mass media (our most abiding sources of information about the world), we seldom do anything about it.  We do not stop buying newspapers or listening to the radio or TV.  We still read what the surveys are saying about the state of public opinion.  We may commission another study to replicate the same survey or buy another paper.  But we never cultivate a systematic distrust of the reality reported to us by these media.

The reason for this is that as society becomes modern, perceptions and communications tend to cluster around specialized societal subsystems.  It is society’s response to complexity.  Such differentiated spheres – like the mass media, science, politics, law, economy, art, etc. – evolve their own operations, codes, and acceptable communication that make manipulation increasingly difficult.  Thus, Pulse Asia will not be able to offer its findings, nor the Inquirer its news, to the highest bidder without at one point being called to account by its own professional personnel, or by the larger communities of which they are a part.

This is the face of the future, and the sooner we learn to accept it, the easier it will be for us to get past the crises in which we are presently stuck.

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