Ranking Sillyness

The Gallup organization announced the other day that they will no longer conduct “horse race” polls in the Presidential primary elections, and presumably in the Presidential general election.  My heart jumped in anticipation that this might be the start of something good.  Might it be possible that we are seeing the beginning of the end of being inundated by “whose on first” polls?

Once the poll takers and marketers got over Truman beating Dewey there has been a steadily rising tide of “best of” “top ten” and “number one” assertions fobbed off as actually meaning something.  Newspapers looking to fill a gap on page two stick in a quick rewrite of a press release from the “Foundation for the Study of Trees” showing that wood is the best, most popular, safest (you choose) source for dinning room tables.  If a national business magazine, looking to promote its own sales, says that Portland, Maine is the number one city, or in the top ten of cities in the country, to see loose old bricks fall from old buildings, it can be the lead on the local television news  with an attribution to the magazine.

We are inundated and overwhelmed by polls and rankings of unknown or questionable validity.  Not only does this deluge of alleged data analysis generate mental laziness, which really needs little help to get going, but more often than not it is the purveyor of misleading or false information.  Everyone and their sister has figured out that one of the best ways to get a message heard or tout some position or business is to have a foundation, national association, or some policy “think tank” release a report extolling that point.

Equally offensive are the rankings of educational institutions by third parties whose interest is less in the personal experience and intellectual skills available at a school, than in getting their name out for public recognition to increase their own bottom line. Worse, schools have begun to use these arbitrary unenlightening rankings as part of their own marketing.  Business friendly rankings almost always fall into this self-serving information set as well.

Unfortunately, I doubt that my hope that the Gallup decision to get out of the Presidential “whose on first” polling is the harbinger of a serious reduction in the polling/ranking business.  It is just too easy to say, “Did you see that Slotter’s Business Journal just ranked Maine is one of the top ten in production of quality blueberries!” Wow:  forgetting to mention that there are only six states in the country that raise blueberries.

When you see a poll or a ranking analysis, always, and I mean always, take it with the largest grain of salt you can lay your hands on.  Who gathered the data?  What data was  gathered? Was the data weighted after it was organized?   What was the exact wording of the question(s) asked? How were the people responding to the questions selected and contacted? Does the organization publishing the poll or ranking have any direct or indirect relation to the area covered in the ranking? How does the organization doing the “study” get its money…always follow the money.

Gallup, in stopping its Presidential polling, acknowledged that they could not put together a polling methodology that worked.  In any poll or ranking report, methodology is the key.  Numbers and raw data seldom lie, but the methodology used to identify the data to be used, the way that data is gathered, manipulated and presented can, and too often is, created by individuals and institutions being paid to serve someone else’s interest or benefit, or its own.  The public consumer of the “facts” thus generated is assumed to be the rube who swallows it whole.

Robert Lenna

About Robert Lenna

My professional career has been involved in bringing to Maine the financial capital to build our infrastructure of housing, schools, roads, hospitals, colleges, water and sewer districts. As Executive Director of four independent state authorities charged with putting together public financing for hundreds of infrastructure projects I was responsible for bringing billions of dollar into the Maine economy.