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The Invalidity of Political Inevitability

Wednesday, 11 Jun 2008 10:52 AM

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“They say” that Democrats will have a landslide victory in November, from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other. So it must be so.

From George Soros to Rupert Murdoch, the wise ones with the finest megaphones money can buy are agreed: Haven’t you heard? It’s in the stars . . .

How do people like that know that they know what they say they know?

Why, they read the opinion polls, of course. What they don’t mention is those costly megaphones have more than a little to do with what turns out being inevitable.

Obsessive yearning for certitude in politics is disgustingly great this year. Vendors feeding that desire are busy peddling the latest on what’s inevitable.

Down here in the swamps of obscure irrelevance, ordinary folk hear what they are told is inevitable from atop the Mount of Infallibility. In turn, pollsters dutifully record in the latest polls what the poll-ees repeat having heard. Poll-interpreters repeat that as scientific fact into their megaphones. What might have been so at one time now becomes accepted as inevitably inevitable.

It saves using one’s own head, which can cause discomfort. Interest in, and knowledge of, the past (it’s called history) takes on fleeting value. Who needs history if you already know what next November’s history will inevitably be?

So, the inevitability-seekers insist upon 100-percent certainty of what’s inevitable. And they want to know it right now, today. Curiosity about what they, themselves, might do to affect their own future (that’s known as individual responsibility) is not high on their I-want-it-when-I-want-it scale.

The ancients believed they could foretell the future by consulting configurations of entrails of owls, and made quite an accepted science of it. Don’t snicker. Opinion polling today is not a whole lot more scientific.

It is based on a science improbably called probability statistics, which is all right, as far as it goes, which isn’t very far. It works like this:

  • Place 50 white and 50 black marbles in a coffee can. Put the lid on. Shake it up. Tie on a blindfold. Extract one marble at random. The scientific theory is that the odds are 50-50 that one marble you pick will be white. Or black. (This is the profundity that political commentators on television utter when they say an election “is up for grabs” or “too close to call.” Aren’t they helpful?)

  • Now, drop that marble back in the coffee can. Close and shake up the can again. Pick another marble at random. If the theory were really scientific, and you picked a black marble the first time, then this second pick should be white — thus validating the 50-50 theory.

    But what if you kept putting the marble back in the coffee can and picking another marble at random, and the marble kept on being the same color? In theory, the more times you repeated the marble selection, the greater the odds would be that you would finally pick a marble of the opposite color.

    Trouble is, that’s just another way of saying that, by the same theory, it is entirely possible that you could keep selecting a marble until the cows came home, and each successive marble might be the same color.

    Thus, the only time this theory is scientifically valid is with the first marble picked. Each successive marble after this is a whole, brand-new game of odds — always 50-50. Things get even more complicated if you put 70 white and 30 black marbles in the coffee can. Or 99 whites and one black. Or visa versa.

    Depending on the condition of the latest mouse eaten by the owl honored to have his alimentary canal studied, that ancient science of predicting the future might have been even more accurate than today’s political opinion polling.

    The big worry about opinion polling is that opinions aren’t marbles. There are more than two colors of opinion, indeed many shades of hues of colors. Worse, unlike marbles, opinions keep changing. People insist on being people.

    It is still five months until the elections. A lot can happen. A lot can not happen. Just like women, men have actually been known to change their minds.

    The scientific theory of certitude that those who predict the inevitable are infallible is invalid. The odds are 100-0. Ask any old owl with guts.

    John L. Perry, a prize-winning newspaper editor and writer who served on White House staffs of two presidents, is a regular columnist for Newsmax.com.

    Read John Perry's columns here.

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