Our Almost-Clear Crystal Ball
To The Editor:
Robert Cobb Myers’ “Opinion Polls and Public Policy” in the November COMMENTARY is an excellent analysis and one that is very much needed today.
We shall doubtless have a flood of good critical articles now that November 2 has come and gone. Mr. Myers deserves very great credit indeed for having seen the importance of the defects and limitations of the polls long before these recent events. I am also sure that you should share in the honor for having seen the value of publishing this type of material.
To The Editor:
I was greatly interested to read Robert Cobb Myers’ article on “Opinion Polls and Public Policy,” though . . . if Mr. Myers had any doubts about the reliability of the polls’ prediction of a Dewey victory, he certainly kept them well hidden from his readers. . . .
Putting this aside, however, I would like to raise a more serious point. Like so many critics of public-opinion polls, Mr. Myers maintains the thesis that polls are unreliable as predictions because they are not sufficiently scientific. The proper thesis is that polls are unreliable precisely because they are scientific. God Himself, operating as the perfect scientific pollster, could not accurately predict the course of human events, because this course is subject to spiritual, creative change, which necessarily escapes scientific prediction.
The method of science projects the relationships and conditions of the past into the future, and holds that these relationships and conditions will continue unchanged throughout time. The method of science has achieved marvelous results in the field of inanimate nature. It also has a certain amount of predictive grip on human affairs—because there are sizable segments of human affairs which are relatively stable. However, it is superstitious to seek, by the further development of scientific tools, to extend the sphere of prediction to such a point as to leave no room for human freedom or human creative change. A country where Gallup is king is fit to be inhabited only by robots, not by men.
The worship of election forecast polls and public opinion polls—the tendency to substitute prediction for intelligent social and political deliberation and action—springs from the superstitious worship of science in human affairs. For that reason it cannot properly be fought by critics like Mr. Myers who take their stand on the need of improving the scientific quality of the polls. The people who hunger for absolute prediction will brush aside such cautions as Mr. Myers presents—they expect to attain their object immediately. On the other hand, such people, precisely because they are superstitious fanatics, are unshaken by factual disappointments. The polls went wrong today, but tomorrow we’ll predict perfectly! That has been the constant cry of the Gallups and the Ropers—and of the credulous public as well.
The only way to combat the superstitious worship of science—whether in polls or in psychology—is by reviving the essentially human studies of ethics, politics, literature, art, and religion, and by developing a clarified philosophy which assigns to the spiritual studies and to the empirical sciences their proper spheres of activity. Many articles in COMMENTARY are genuine contributions along this line, but Mr. Myers’ article definitely falls short.