David Sable Advises Us to Pay No Attention to Pollsters Behind the Numbers…yet.

  • By digitaldiary
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  • on August 7, 2020

As originally published by David Sable on Linkedin. Subscribe to the newsletter!

With the presidential election just about three months away, I begin a new occasional series on polls and data and elections by looking back five years to a time before the last election cycle.

How Not to be Surprised by Big Data Misses” is a piece I wrote some five years ago as I contemplated what was coming through the lens of global news headlines such as, “Cameron’s Conservatives win in surprise UK election” or “Unexpected triumph means Cameron can govern UK on his own

With the benefit of hindsight, we all know where that went in the end.

My conclusion, at that time, was simple and it remains a pillar of my approach to understanding data and deriving insights today particularly around the upcoming U.S. election: “Let’s be clear – data has been used to predict elections for a long time – with varying results.”

In an online article on UK-based IT Pro, Martin Lee, cybercrime manager at Alert Logic wrote, “People are wonderfully unpredictable.” He continues, “You can create mathematical models that describe everything that is likely to happen to the finest detail, and then people go and do something you didn’t expect.”

He describes here what I like to call, “human serendipity.” It is one factor we cannot account for and the elusive holy grail in the data picture, whether we talk about elections, crime or disease.

We are HUMANS, and while you can take good or better-than-educated guesses at what I might like, or buy, or do…or how I might vote…at least a good 50% of the time – and I am giving just a conservative estimate here– I will fool you and do just the opposite.

I concluded the article by quoting an icon of future thinking and human endeavor:

“We humans are full of unpredictable emotions that logic alone cannot solve.”— James T. Kirk

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece during the 2016 presidential election titled, “Trump’s Win Has Ad Agencies Rethink How They Collect Data, Recruit Staff.” The gist of the piece is that all were out of touch with consumers…voters…people…

Some key quotations in the article remain instructive and applicable to us four years later:

  • “Marketing needs to reflect less of New York and Los Angeles culture…and more of Des Moines and Scranton”—Harris Diamond, CEO of McCann
  • Research methodologies even in the era of big data are subject to human bias”—Antonio Lucio, the then CMO of HP
  • “We want to make sure we not just understand our demo, but the mind-set of our demo right now”—David Droga

And my own quote, (one of my favorites by the way):

  • “If you want to understand how a lion hunts, you don’t go to the zoo, you go to the jungle.”

Looks to me like not much has changed, except that we seem to have forgotten everything we said then, which means those lessons are worth repeating and exploring.

We need to reflect less of New York; The New York Times recently reported on where Trump and Biden were raising money and who was winning the cash-raise race. Please take a look at the full map after you read the story.

Research subject to human bias? Ben Shapiro, the “Conservative” star commentator, gave an interview on Fox a couple of weeks ago, opining on a Fox poll that showed some 30+% of U.S. citizens don’t agree or weren’t sure that that the country’s Founding Fathers were heroes. And of course, the racial skew was fairly high.

His view? Devastating to the future. My view? When correlated to people’s view on Democracy (which is high), it’s healthy. Not all those among the 30% of Founding Father skeptics are bent on destruction, but would rather the history books take a more holistic and nuanced approach to describing the complex lives and beliefs of the men who founded modern-day America. Ben Shapiro has a bias. I have a bias. And no doubt, you have your own biases on how we should best approach the meaning of a poll like the one Shapiro discussed on this particular segment. My point being simply, BE AWARE.

As for mindset? Honestly? How about the financial anguish? And then of course my point about zoos and jungles

Frankly, it’s worse than ever as we can’t get to either zoo or jungle, making it that much more important to sit back, take a deep breath and think before we make pronouncements based on online polls or other data without filtering it thoroughly through a variety of sources, references and biases.

My opening salvo:

It’s way too early to predict anything. The pundits, experts, opiners and whiners are already out there with their crystal balls, tarot cards and algorithms, and I guarantee we will see more excuses and whining about the surprise—whichever one it is.

So, stay tuned. More to come. And in the meantime, exercise your critical thinking and always #thinkbeforeyoushare. Listen:

“I try not to be surprised. Surprise is the public face of a mind that has been closed”—Bernard Beckett

There you have it—surprise equated with closed mindedness. Silos. Open your mind. Expand your range of input and take it all in with a grain or two of skepticism, cynicism and plain old-fashioned doubt. And you can throw a pinch of sarcasm into your thinking as well…

What do you think?

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