Cutting through the bullshit.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Reading polls

Just yesterday, US Vice President Richard “Dick’ Cheney was caught in the act of trying to delude a group of 100 high school students in Wyoming into the old myth of Iraqi involvement in 9/11.

Nico Pitney writes on Think Progress, via AlterNet,

During the question and answer session, one student asked, "I was wondering -- I'm not trying to start a debate, or anything, but do you still think that the Iraq war can be won?" Cheney immediately answered "yes," adding, "I think we're making significant progress now."

He then launched into a justification of the war, citing the September 11 attacks. "The fact of the matter is Iraq is part of the global war on terror," he told the students. "And you've got to go back and look at what happened on 9/11." Cheney recounted the tale of the late al-Qaeda operative Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, one of the administration's great pre-war myths:

The worst terrorist we had in Iraq was a guy named Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian by birth; served time in a Jordanian prison as a terrorist, was let out on amnesty. ... Then when we launched into Afghanistan after 9/11, he was wounded, and fled to Baghdad for medical treatment, and then set up shop in Iraq. So he operated in Jordan, he operated in Afghanistan, then he moved to Iraq.

Thankfully, Cheney’s lie about Iraq and 9/11 has not got through to the majority of Americans, according to the results of the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll of 1205 adults between 29 May and 1 June, although, as I think we’ll see, other aspects of his message have penetrated their consciousness.

An encouraging majority of 67% ‘disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq’. In April 70% disapproved. Fifty-five percent want the number of US troops in Iraq reduced, the highest proportion since they started asking the question in March 2005, and of these, 27% – that is 15% of the entire population – wanted immediate withdrawal. Of the other 72% who didn’t demand immediate withdrawal, a total of 57% wanted the troops out by the end of 2008, including 31% who wanted them out this year.

Considering that over half want US troops withdrawn, it is somewhat unsettling that 75% consider ‘a full-scale civil war in Iraq’ likely if ‘the United States withdraws from Iraq before civil order is restored there’. Under those circumstances, 72% think it’s likely that ‘parts of Iraq’ will become ‘a base of operations for terrorists targeting the US’, yet 62% said ‘the risk of a terrorist attack occurring here in the United States’ was ‘about the same’ whether troops withdrew or remained in Iraq. Seventy-two percent envision ‘Iran taking control of parts of Iraq’.

Since April, the proportion saying that the war with Iraq was not worth fighting ‘considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States’, has declined by five percentage point from 66% to 61%. Asked whether they ‘think the war with Iraq has or has not contributed to the long-term security of the United States’, 53% thought it hadn’t.

Asked whether they ‘think things in this country (are generally going in the right direction) or do you feel things (have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track)’, 73% said it was on the wrong track, the highest proportion since January 1996. But only 19% of them thought this was because of the war in Iraq.

Sixty-two percent disapprove Bush’s ‘handling his job as president’ and 60% ‘cannot trust the Bush administration to honestly and accurately report intelligence about security threats facing the United States’.

Anyway, what I find interesting about this poll is not so much the numbers as the questions. My understanding is that it’s ordinarily considered unacceptable to ask leading questions. Technically, perhaps these are not leading, as the wording doesn’t prejudice the answer. But to answer a question like ‘Do you think the United States is or is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq?’ (64% thought not) at all, you have to presuppose first that you know what ‘civil order means and that you agree that it is a desirable thing. Then that there was once civil order before, but is not now, that the US is trying to restore civil order, that it wants to restore civil order. Furthermore, you need to accept the assumption that the US was not involved in disrupting this desirable state of affairs. Only then can you decide whether the US is making progress and whether the progress is significant. So it’s a leading question in the sense that it entices you to make dodgy presuppositions and assumptions and accept bogus implications, whatever response you give.

I hasten to add that the biggest presupposition of all, penetrating all these questions, the real dinosaur on the ceiling that’s so big you can never perceive it, is that there is some unitary entity that is ‘the United States’ that incurs costs and derives benefits as a whole, enjoys security collectively, without distinctions of any kind. The ubiquitous and pernicious myth underlying nationalism.

Similarly, ‘Do you think this increase of U.S. forces will or will not improve the security situation there over the next few months?’ (No, according to 58%.)

‘Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling the US campaign against terrorism?’ assumes that the respondent knows what terrorism means, which is very far from obvious. Well, the respondents probably have the same commonsense impression of what it is as the propagandists want them to have, but if pressed almost certainly couldn’t define it so as to capture what they mean without tying themselves in knots with arbitrary exclusions – ‘non state actors’, and the like. They also have to accept the assumption that there is a campaign, that it is against terrorism, that it’s the US [sic] that is waging it, and that Bush is handling it.

If you want to have a bit of a laugh, you can tease out the assumptions and presuppositions lurking in this one: ‘Do you think (the United States must win the war in Iraq in order for the broader war on terrorism to be a success), or do you think (the war on terrorism can be a success without the United States winning the war in Iraq?)’

One of the things that comes up when you think about these things is what the prejudices betrayed by a close analysis of the question wording mean. Do the people framing the questions word them as they do to achieve a predetermined result? Or to influence the opinions they purport to be trying to measure? Or are they as oblivious as everyone else? When they ask about ‘US campaign against terrorism’, is it because they believe all the presuppositions underlying the question? Or are they trying to insinuate it into the consciousness of the respondents, as if they needed to do that? Or is it just common sense and they never really thought about the presuppositions in the first place?

In the 1993 BBC tv series ‘To play the king’, Francis Urquhart’s lover, a pollster by the name of Sarah Harding, if memory serves, claims she can word questions to achieve any results she wants. With evidence like that, I’ve always assumed that these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

But perhaps I give them too much credit. In this poll, you probably noticed that none of the questions asks about the ‘invasion of Iraq’ or ‘occupation of Iraq’. Expressions like that would evidence bias on the part of the framer and suggest an agenda. Similarly, ‘war on Iraq’ has a clear implication that Iraq is somehow the victim of the war. ‘War in Iraq’ and the even more ‘neutral’ ‘situation in Iraq’, however, occur in a number of the questions. I find it intriguing that two questions – the ‘costs and benefits’ question and the one about ‘long-term security’ – ask about ‘the war with Iraq’. Now the way I read it, ‘war on Iraq’ makes Iraq the victim, and is obviously unacceptable. ‘War in Iraq’ simply locates the war and is therefore quite neutral. But ‘war with Iraq’ makes the US and Iraq direct adversaries. This does not strike me as according with the prevailing tenor of the questions, which assume that the US presence there is wholly beneficent – ‘restoring civil order’ and ‘improve the security situation’, presumably positive things. I surmise, therefore, that this prepositional lapse was unintentional, so maybe the boffins framing these opinion poll questions are not quite as infallibly Machiavellian as commonly believed.

As with any political discourse, what’s omitted is often as significant as, if not more significant than, what’s expressed. And perhaps the most glaring omission among all these questions pertaining specifically to the US ‘war on terror’ is any mention of Afghanistan. I doubt if this is what motivated the pollsters, but my own fear would be that we’d find quite radically different views on the justification for the invasion of Afghanistan and desirability of retaining a military presence there. A trope that often comes up in discussions on what passes for the left in the US is that the unprovoked aggression against Afghans was entirely justified. That’s where the ‘real war on terror’ is going on. After all, ‘their government’, the despised Taliban whose actions were obviously the personal responsibility of every Afghan, defied the US’s demand for Osama bin Laden’ extradition, utterly unreasonably insisting on evidence of his guilt. Now if anything has ever justified slaughtering thousands, driving tens of thousands into exile in the middle of winter, and scattering cluster bomblets all over the countryside, that would have to be it.

The only mention of Iran is in the question about whether Iran would take control of parts of Iraq in thee event of a US withdrawal. With all the hype there’s been about Iran’s mythical nuclear weapons, I’d actually be rather surprised if there weren’t a significant population in the benighted USA that believed that Iran had an existing stockpile and had explicitly threatened to nuke New York and Tel Aviv. But that’s just speculation. It would be interesting to see the response to a survey question. And I for one would be interested, with some considerable trepidation, to see what proportion of Americans support attacking Iran. Well, clearly the Washington Post and ABC News don’t think we’re ready to know that yet.


  1. i believe you're thinking of this exchange from Yes, Prime Minister:

    To set the scene Bernard and Humphrey are discussing the accuracy of polls.

    Humphrey - Bernard, a nice young lady comes up to you. You want to create a good impression; you don’t want to look a fool, do you?
    Bernard - No.
    Humphrey - So she starts asking you some questions. Mr Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - Are you worried about rising crime among teenagers? Do you think our schools lack discipline?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - Do you think young people welcome authority and leadership?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - They like a challenge?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - Would you be in favour of national service?
    Bernard - I suppose I might be.
    Humphrey - Yes or no?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - After all you’ve told me, you can’t say no. They don’t mention the first five questions and publish the last one.
    Bernard - Is that really what they do?
    Humphrey - Not the reputable ones, but there aren’t many of those. Alternatively, the young lady can get the opposite result.
    Bernard - How?
    Humphrey - Mr Woolley, are you worried about war?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - Are you worried about the arms race?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - Is it dangerous giving young people guns?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - Is it wrong to force people to take up arms?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - - Would you oppose national service?
    Bernard - Yes.
    Humphrey - There you are, you see, Bernard. The perfect balanced sample.


  2. Thanks for that, Barry. Now that you remind me, I recall that scene, but no, it's not the one I was thinking of. If you know where there's a link to 'To play the king' I can stream, please post it. I'd like to confirm my recollection.