July 7, 2010
Posted by David Karpf
Paul Dawson, one of my favorite political science professors at Oberlin, used to talk a lot about “sacred cows” in the context of politics. “You’ve got to be careful when you stumble upon someone’s sacred cow issue. You’ll know that it’s a sacred cow when they start to gore you.”
Nate Silver, it seems, has stumbled onto a sacred cow with his pollster rankings. And, true to form, John Zogby has penned a petulant “Note to Nate,” placed prominently on the Huffington Post, in reply. Zogby’s tone aims for “old pro, advising the young hotshot,” but his prose misses the mark by a loooooong shot.
My favorite passages in his reply are titled (yes, there are titles for each paragraph) “Understand that there’s much more to being a good pollster” and “appreciate innovation.” In the former, he suggests that being a pollster is actually all about the people-skills and poses the question, “your ratings come with and generate a lot of vitriol. How does that make our world a better place?” In the latter, he compares the internet polling of Zogby international with Columbus discovering America and Roentgen discovering the x-ray. At least he didn’t compare himself to Jonas Salk.
What’s most striking to me in Zogby’s reply is the blatant revelation of “guild-status” within the polling community. Y’know why nobody has done pollster rankings before Nate Silver? Because it’s a lot of work, not easily to monetize, and doesn’t make you any friends. In the world of professional pollsters, it’s impolite to aggregate the numbers and actually publish rankings. That can cost people money! And (directly following Zogby’s logic) the polls aren’t supposed to be predictive anyway (even if they’re pitched and used that way by the media), they’re supposed to aid “data-based problem-solvers,” whatever THAT means.
Guilds are a classic organizational form. They are often a good thing – generally, if a task is difficult and undervalued, guilds can help to pool knowledge, allow for standards-setting and accreditation, and enable collective action. But in the midst of disruptive shifts in technology (particularly information technology), they essentially create a privileged in-group that guards against the revelation of their own weaknesses and failings, seeking to punish outsiders and protect their cherished turf. The early 21st century has been rife with guild-based sacred-cow gorings, and it has not been pretty.
And that’s my open message to John Zogby. Your “Note to Nate” ain’t pretty, and it ain’t classy. Silver is advancing public understanding of polling. If he isn’t doing it well enough, then you have all the incentive in the world to do better. Your guild of pollsters (which, supported by the high operating costs and a norm of not promoting “vitriol” seems to have prompted at least one huckster to flat-out fabricate polls) is coming apart at the seams, largely because of changes in the communications environment. If Zogby International is as innovative as you claim, then I’m sure your company will adapt to the new climate. In the meantime, maybe try not to write tacky open letters like this one so much…