If something sounds too good to be true then it is most likely untrue but if something sounds too bad to be true you can probably take it to the bank.
If there is anything axiomatic about that proposition then perhaps I should claim proprietory rights on it and call it ‘Carr’s Law’ or something. I am not sure how much use this law will prove to be on a practical day-to-day basis but it may oblige as a useful yardstick against which to measure my natural cynicism about opinion polls, surveys and related statistical exercises.
For example, take this one, published last month:
David Blunkett has pledged to push ahead with ID card legislation after an opinion poll said most people would be happy to carry one.
The MORI survey was commissioned by an IT consultancy which has worked on projects with the government.
It revealed 80% of those questioned backed a national ID card scheme, echoing findings from previous polls.
And published yesterday:
Most people would support closing a legal loophole that allows parents to smack their children, says a survey.
A total of 71% of people would favour such a ban, according to a survey commissioned by the Children are Unbeatable! Alliance.
And published today:
A majority of British adults favour a total ban on smoking in public places, a survey suggests.
A poll of more than 1,500 people by market analysts Mintel found 52% support for a ban, including two-thirds of non-smokers.
Despite my ingrained reluctance to pay these wretched surveys even a jot of heed, I do accept that a sufficient number of such polling exercises (if conducted scientifically and honestly) can, correctly identify a trend if not quite reveal great truths. Assuming that some objective methodology has been employed in the gathering and analysis of the above data, then the polls paint a picture which is clear but, from my point of view as a classical liberal, bitterly depressing. In other words, and applying my own axiom as set out above, it all sounds too bad to be true and is, therefore, probably true.
Typically, that would be just about all I have to say on the matter. I would offer it up as just another product of the Samizdata Moan and Groan Factory, designed and hand-crafted specially to ruin your day.
But that is far from all I wish to say because none of the above seems to tally with what might reasonably be regarded as the definitive political phenomenon of this decade: vote apathy.
By every standard that is not open to interpretation, participation and interest in politics (especially electoral politics) is in free-fall decline. Wheareas they could once have been counted in the millions, the membership rolls of both Labour and Conservative Parties combined barely nudges the 500,000 mark. Voter turnout drops lower with each passing election and, in terms of popularity and respect, politicians themselves rank somewhere between tele-salesmen and kidney stones.
The Great Public Disconnect is the talk of the town and the very real prospect of the next election producing a landslide win for the ‘None of the Above’ Party is already sending the political and media classes into a funk.
So what is actually going on here? The public no longer cares for politics in any shape or form yet they appear to be hungry for ever-more state intervention in and micro-management of their lives. Could it be (oh horror of horrors!) that the yawning disillusion of a fed-up and alienated public is the not the product of frustration with an government that nannies and regulates too much but an expression of disappointment due to the perception that the government does not regulate and nanny sufficiently?
On the other hand, I must temper my concerns with other concerns about the accuracy of these monotonously gloomy surveys. This is not just because of the appeal to the crude majoritarianism which passes for discourse in this country but because opinion polls of the political kind are not (and never have been) mere objective exercises. They are a form of propganda and are shamelessly wielded as such in a “resistance-is-futile” method of undermining opposition to favoured agendas.
Is it merely coincidence then, that these apparent ‘huge majorities’ all appear to be roundly supportive of every Big Brother/Nanny State project currently under construction? Or, to put it another way, for the project managers, are these results too good to be true?
We can but hope that my axiom holds water in that regard.
Cross-posted to White Rose.