Saturday, May 13, 2006

lies, damn lies and polls

You are excused if you have been confused by the polls showing X number of Americans willing to give away their rights to the faceless bureaucracy of the NSA (and their RNC masters) while another poll shows precisely opposite results. There are very good reasons why you should be confused. Let's look at why:

In the former case, a Washington Post/ABC News poll rushed out immediately in the aftermath of the public exposure of the Bush domestic spying program reported that 63% of Americans were okay with the violation of their Fourth Amemndment liberties while only 35% percent opposed being reduced to so many paramecium-under-glass for the White House microscope. The article reporting this 'finding was titled 'Poll: Most Americans Support NSA's Efforts.'

But then how do we square this with a Newsweek poll that reports that 53% see the spying as 'going too far' while only 41% support the Presidential snooping on the domestic affairs of his so-called fellow citizens?

Well, a poll is only as good as the question put to the individual whose input is sought. It turns out that the question that the Washington Post/ABC News asked was:
"What do you think is more important right now -- (for the federal government to investigate possible terrorist threats, even if that intrudes on personal privacy); or (for the federal government not to intrude on personal privacy, even if that limits its ability to investigate possible terrorist threats)?
That sort of language can understandably slant a person's veiw of the question, since it poses it in terms of 'are you with the terrorists or are you with us?' The Newsweek poll, while it presumably did mention domestic spying as a potentially 'necessary tool to combat terrorism' was likely posed in not nearly so loaded a fashion. Hence the disparity between the polls. [Dan Froomkin suggests some poll questions that do not set up a false conflict between retaining Constitutional liberties and counterterrorism:
* Do you feel you know enough about how this program works to reach a definitive conclusion?

* Do you think the public should know more about this program and others like it?

* Should the government be able to launch programs like this in secret?

* Do you think President Bush should have asked for approval from the courts or Congress before taking this action?

* Do you trust the Bush administration not to abuse a program like this, when there is no independent oversight?]
Note that in neither case were the polls phrased in terms of violations of Constitutional liberties - which in fact is what we are talking about.

Which is why all this talk about polls is really a red herring. You don't just drop Constitution provisions on the basis of an overnight poll. They are intended to be something a bit more permanent that that. That is why we have a Constitution to begin with (at least that is my understanding, although it has come to my attention that the Busheviks find that kind of reasoning to be 'quaint'). Billmon makes the point eloquently:
The whole point of having civil liberties is that they are not supposed to be subject to a majority veto. Hobbes may not have believed in natural rights, but our founders did. And their opponents, the anti-Federalists, were even more zealous about restraining the powers of the federal superstate, which is why they forced the Federalists to write the Bill of Rights directly into the Constitution.

It defeats the purpose of having a 4th Amendment if its validity is entirely dependent on breaking 50% in the latest poll.
Now, of course, public opinion matters but we are a nation of laws, are we not? And the law and Constitution are unequivocal on the point of domestic spying: probable cause must be provided to a judge for any such surveillance to be legal.

What Bush has done is clearly illegal and a violation of his oath of office to uphold the Constitution, whether 'popular' or not. It would be just as illegal - no matter how popular - if he had all people of Dutch descent ("There's only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures and the Dutch.") taken out and shot without due process of law.

Arbusto Dalenda Est

Update 5/14/05: Editor and Publisher tries to explain the difference in terms of the quick evolution of the issue. Wht WP/ABC poll was done before many people had even heard of the issue.
So what happened? Most likely views changed that much in one day after more negative media reports (including many from conservative commentators such as MSNBC's Joe Scarborough) surfaced. The Washington Post survey took place before many Americans had heard about, or thought about, the implications. The Newsweek Poll also reached twice as many Americans.

The Washington Post/ABC survey was conducted Thursday, just after the NSA news broke via USA Today, and reached just 502 citizens. Newsweek polled 1007 Americans on both Thursday and Friday. It found that even 27% of Republicans voiced disapproval of the phone records program.
While true, I think this is a contributing factor not the entire explanation. In short, the wording of the WP/ABC poll is loaded.

Note, for example, how the secrecy aspect, which is so very important, is completely ignored in the poll question. It would be one thing for the question to be posed openly (even if slantedly) as in the poll, but for the spying be simply be done by fiat without our knowledge - and with the express intention of never informing us - puts the program in an entirely different sort of light. It is not just that 'personal liberties' are 'intruded on' with our consent: it is the fact that the very basis for constitutional liberties has - secretly and without our consent - been declared obsolete.

Researchers have found that individuals given identical situations to analyze in a polling question will give different answers depending on how the question is presented. As a hypothetical example, if you ask people whether they would undertake a rescue mission to save 25 people from a sinking boat at the risk of losing a helicopter crew of 10 they are much more likely to do so if you tell them the odds of success are 30% than if you tell them the odds of failure are 70%. Researchers have found that although mathematically the situations presented are identical, framing the question differently can produce polar opposite results.

UPDATE 5/15/06: we hear this today from USA Today:
A majority of Americans disapprove of a massive Pentagon database containing the records of billions of phone calls made by ordinary citizens, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll. About two-thirds are concerned that the program may signal other, not-yet-disclosed efforts to gather information on the general public....

By 51%-43%, those polled disapprove of the program, disclosed Thursday in USA TODAY....

Most of those who approve of the program say it violates some civil liberties but is acceptable because "investigating terrorism is the more important goal."...

About two-thirds say they're concerned that the federal government might be gathering other information about the public, such as bank records and data on Internet use, or listening in on domestic phone conversations without obtaining a warrant.

Two-thirds are concerned that the database will identify innocent Americans as possible terrorism suspects....

The findings differ from an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken Thursday night of 502 adults. In that survey, 63% called the program an acceptable way to investigate terrorism. The findings may differ because questions in the two polls were worded differently. [emphasis added]