All right, I confess: being a math geek, I actually love polls to death.
I love nearly everything about them… especially the game of taking some tendentious poll and trying to tease out what’s really going on beneath all the thud & blunder. And boy, did I run across a doozy yesterday!
How’s this for a headline?
Poll: Americans Say World War III Likely
by Will Lester
Jul 23, 2005, 4:01 PM (ET)
WASHINGTON (AP) – Americans are far more likely than the Japanese to expect another world war in their lifetime, according to AP-Kyodo polling 60 years after World War II ended. Most people in both countries believe the first use of a nuclear weapon is never justified.
What caught my eye like a free-swinging fish hook [eeew] was the comparison between Japanese and Americans. Why such a huge difference?
Six in 10 Americans said they think such a war is likely, while only one-third of the Japanese said so, according to polling done in both countries for The Associated Press and Kyodo, the Japanese news service.
According to my wife Sachi, who is Japanese, there is a lot less political variation among Japanese than among Americans. There are Japanese Communists, of course; a lot more than here. And there are true “right-wingers” who still yearn for the emperor to seize control and turn Japan back into an imperial-military dictatorship.
But both of those extremes added together are still a very tiny percent of the population, not likely to show up in a typical poll of 1,000 respondents. Outside that fringe, Japanese political opinion is much flatter than in America.
So my suspicion — in the absence of any real data in the AP article about the actual poll results — is that the Japanese response of 33% was likely across the board, whether the Japanese places himself to the left or the right of the political centerline (mathematically, I predict a very low standard deviation).
But let’s turn to the American side. How on earth do we get 60% of Americans convinced that World War III is just around the corner?
The rest of this post is numbers, numbers, numbers… so if you took your Sociology or English Lit degree precisely to avoid those squirmy little figures, don’t continue reading this post!
In contradistinction with Japan, America is a divided nation on a great many issues… and more often than not, the divide is between liberals and conservatives. In particular, can we at least agree that liberals are not exactly fond of George W. Bush? In fact, they see him as a dangerous demagogue who invades other countries without the slightest provocation (Afghanistan, Iraq, you know) and wants to destroy the entire world so Dick Cheney can get rich stealing oil wells from the poor. Or something like that.
There have been a lot of polls lately trying to determine who is a liberal, who a conservative, and who is in between. Taking my cue from history, I’ll call those in the middle who can’t make up their minds mugwumps, since their mug is on one side of the fence, and their “wump” is on the other. There are two basic schools of thought on the polity:
1. Liberals: 40%; Conservatives: 40%; Mugwumps: 20%
2. Liberals: 33%; Conservatives: 33%; Mugwumps: 34%
What’s interesting (to me, at least) is that my analysis of this poll is not significantly affected by whichever one of these scenarios you accept. You still get the same result.
Let’s take the Japanese response rate — 33% think World War III is likely — as the norm: with regular people, a third will believe that WWIII is coming. Since I am, as you all know, completely non-biased about this — shut-up, you in the back! — I’m going to assume that this is probably also the figure reported by the conservatives in the poll: 33% of conservatives believe that WWIII is on its way.
The liberals, however, are another matter. Anyone here old enough to remember Reagan’s election in 1980 knows that, well, liberals tend to get a little hysterical about proactive Republican presidents who actually want to defend the United States (the brutes). The American Left is little better this time around with George W. Bush; just count the number of passionate predictions that Bush will bring about Armageddon.
I think I’m pretty safe in assigning 90% to the liberals; 90% of self-identified liberals probably believe that World War III is likely, at least until a Democrat is elected president.
Finally, we come to the mugwumps. On the one hand, they tend to think like liberals; but on the other hand, they tend to think like conservatives. So lets be cheeky and just split the difference: the mugwumps get 61.5%.
Here is how the two scenarios work out with values of 33%, 90%, and 61.5% for conservatives, liberals, and mugwumps, respectively:
Scenario 1: 61.5% of respondents believe WWIII likely;
Scenario 2: 61.5% of respondents believe WWIII likely.
The two scores are identical — but this is an artifact of averaging them to get the mugwump level, of course. In any event, there is your “6 in ten Americans” saying “they think such a war is likely.” Voila!
But it really doesn’t matter that much, even if we lower the mugwump level. If only 50% of mugwumps expect WWIII, you get 59% for scenario 1 and 58% for scenario 2… again, AP would probably describe both as “6 in ten Americans.”
Even at a 45% mugwump fear-factor, the final results are 58% and 56%, respectively. (AP might describe the last number as “somewhat over half,” rather than “6 out the ten” — assuming AP was trying to be unbiased. Whether that’s likely is left as an exercise for the reader.)
What all of this means is that if the American Left is hysterical enough, they can skew the entire poll to make it seem that Americans in general think World War III is headed our way — when in fact, it’s only American liberals and the most liberal elements of the mugwumps.
As a final check of our hypotheses, let’s read a couple of the pro-WWIII respondent comments that AP quoted.
“Man’s going to destroy man eventually. When that will be, I don’t know,” said Gaye Lestaeghe of Freeport, La.
I can feel the inner liberal rising to the surface….
Some question whether that war has arrived, with fighting dragging on in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the U.S. campaign against terrorism.
“I feel like we’re in a world war right now,” said Susan Aser, a real estate agent from Rochester, N.Y.
Bingo; I think we rang the bell on that response! For anyone to imagine that what we’re experiencing right now, the “sacrifices” we must make (like arriving at the airport an hour earlier), is the same as what our grandparents enduring fighting the last numbered war, he has to be not only myopic to the point of utter blindness but also willfully and criminally ignorant of very recent American history. Since we already established above that I am utterly unbiased, you can just take my word for it: that thought can only be thunk by a liberal.
Finally, there is this bit, which brightened up my whole day:
Two-thirds of Americans say the use of atomic bombs was unavoidable…. Just one-half of Americans approve of the use of the atomic bombs on Japan.
So in other words, at least 17% of Americans thought the use of the atom bomb in 1945 was unavoidable — yet they nevertheless fault us for using it.
Go figure that one out!