Saturday, May 08, 2010

How Do They Know?

It has nettled me for some time. An election takes place, and the pundits immediately dive in with their learned analysis of what the voters “meant” with their votes. And the question always rattles around in the back of my head, How do they know? We saw it, in spades, when the Republican Scott Brown was elected to the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s former seat: The punditocracy assured us that this was, somehow, a “referendum” on President Obama’s policies, or Kennedy’s, or the entire Democratic Party’s, or all of the above. And I asked myself How do they know? Since all the while the election struck me as being Massachusetts voters’ “referendum” on the extraordinarily bad campaign run by the Democrat Martha Coakley.

The question--How do they know?--popped into my head again on Thursday afternoon as the stock market tumbled. I received in short order half a dozen news alerts on the subject, most of which followed the same tack as this from CNN:
    Dow plummets more than 900 points on Greece’s debt crisis.
The first part, of course, is empirical, factual: the Dow Jones Industrial Average either did or did not fall more than 900 points. Everyone says it did, so I assume it did.

But the second part is only speculative: How does anyone know, really know that it was because of Greece’s debt crisis? Obviously no one went and polled investors and traders and other parties, all of whom said, “It’s Greece, man, it’s all about Greece’s debt crisis.”

How do they know?

Well, maybe it’s as I’ve long suspected: They don’t. For about an hour after the first news alert from CNN, which assured me that the plunge was because of Greece’s woes, came this bulletin from CNN:
    Dow closes down about 350 points. Faulty P&G stock quotes, Greek debt issue roil investors.
Wait--what? Where did the P&G angle come from? An hour and twenty minutes earlier it was all because of Greece. Now it’s “faulty” stock quotes. And--oh, yeah--that Greece thing, too.

And now here’s this from yesterday’s New York Times, which pretty well summarizes everything I read or heard on the subject on Friday:
    Origin of Wall Street’s Plunge Continues to Elude Officials
The article offers this intriguing quotation:
    ”The problem is you don’t come in and find out what the clear answer is,” said Art Hogan, the New York-based chief market analyst at Jefferies & Company. “We don’t have the clear explanation for how it happened.”
Really? All of the news outlets sure did on Thursday; they were near-unanimous in reporting that it was because of Greece. Now everyone’s saying we don’t know, we won’t know right away, maybe we won’t know at all.


So my longstanding question is answered, and the answer is as I’ve suspected. They don’t know. They’re speculating. They’re guessing, in fact. But it doesn’t sound good to say, ”Dow plummets more than 900 points, maybe on Greece’s debt crisis, maybe not. Nobody knows for sure.”

Although that’s kind of what they’re all saying now, isn’t it?

Might it not be better to come off a little less certain in these news bulletins? Might it not pay to use words like maybe or perhaps or some speculate? I’m thinking long-range here. I’m thinking of the credibility gap that widens whenever I read something like Dow plummets more than 900 points on Greece’s debt crisis, followed mere hours later by something like Origin of Wall Street’s Plunge Continues to Elude Officials. Because the next time I read an assertion that purports to know the unknowable I will again ask myself How do they know?

And I will remind myself, They don’t.

So what’s gained by their behaving as if they know the unknowable? Nothing. They have only undermined their own decreasing credibility. And both the news outlets and their audiences suffer for it.

And, really, all they have to do is stop acting like they know when they’re speculating. That’s all. It’s a matter of phrasing. And a matter of attitude.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Questions, So Many Questions!

As may be obvious to regular readers of this little blog, I enjoy (sometimes) taking various online surveys, all of which earn me points that I may use to purchase overpriced baubles that I don't need or enter me into sweepstakes that I won't win. Clearly my purpose in taking these things is merely's a step above playing solitaire, perhaps. Also, I have occasionally been sent products to use and report back on, which is kind of fun.

Part of the amusement, for me, is noting oddities in the preparation of these surveys. Having written more than a couple of them in my time, I know they can be tricky little devils. And I know how easy it is to be pulled off-track, or to discover that that which was plainly obvious to you is not so much to your participants. (I've had the same experience in my teaching endeavors: If the "correct" answer is A but three-fourths of the class put down B, perhaps the question was not worded as clearly as it might have been!)

Along that line, here's Exhibit A, a screenshot of a page from a survey I took a couple of weeks ago:

Don't ask me why, but I am tickled by the request for approximate number of employees followed by the first option, one, which is pretty specific. "Approximately how many employees do you have at your location?" "One." "No, I need the approximate number of employees." "Oh. About one."

Then there's this, which has nothing to do with the survey itself but struck me as a strange dialog box. We did some fiddling with our Verizon account last week, ending up with a couple of new phones, and the company followed up by asking if I'd take a brief survey about the experience. Why not? There was only a handful of quick questions, at the end of which appeared this:

As instructed, I used the red Close box to close the survey tab. Or at least such was my intent. Evidently the survey didn't think much of the idea, and gave me the dialog box at the top of the screenshot: Please close your browser explicitly. Explicity? Um, okay: Close, you #@$%* piece of #@!^& or so help me I'll @*%#®!! Explicit enough?

Finally, a shout-out to Alert Reader Ronald: You are absolutely right! Talk about hoisting oneself on one's own petard!  I deleted the blog post because I didn't want the survey creators identified when in fact the mistake I chided them for was my own, but the gist of it is this: I tweaked them for an unclearly phrased question, but as Ronald pointed out, the question was fine: It was the reader, yours truly, who was misreading it! Which, in a strange, funhouse-mirror way, sort of made my point, which was that it's important to have more than one set of eyes peruse these (and other) things before they go out the door. Would that I had followed my own advice!
Nice to know people read these posts. I should include errors on a regular basis so as to elicit more feedback!