Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Is it paranoia if you think people are out to mess up things that don't really matter?

I ask this question because I have a stereotypical understanding of paranoia. I picture the guy holed up in his basement with jars of peanut butter and firearms because he's worried the IRS (who front for the alien overlord) is coming to take his brain. The dictionary defines paranoia as excessive fear or anxiety about one's own well-being taken to irrational levels.

Is it still paranoia if you're not really afraid? Or if the thing you're afraid of isn't important, and you know it isn't? I ask these questions because of a press release I found on the G.O.P. website. It's about exit polls, which is what television stations conduct by surveying people who left the ballot place. They're not scientific. They're not binding. The only reason they exist is for the television stations (who program 6 or eight hours of election "coverage") to begin to have some numbers to report. They do this because it takes time to count all the ballots, and results usually don't come until late in the day. What are they going to talk about if they don't have some numbers? So they latch onto anything, like exit polls, statistical probabilities, and even counting bumper stickers on cars.

As someone who's read "Statistics for Dummies," you can tell I don't think much of these exit polls. Here's the strange thing: apparently, the GOP does. Here's the link. That release, which starts with the attention-getting "BEWARE the exit polls," lets everyone know that traditionally, the Republicans aren't favored in exit polls. If this were just a statement saying "The exits may not favor us, but hold on: we win in the end!" I wouldn't be surprised. After all, that's basically what's happened lately.

But when I read this statement, I get the feeling like there's something else going on here. There are sections about exit polls influencing voter turn out in later time zones. They talk about how things skewed Democratic, but they turned around when the "real vote" came in. Doesn't everyone know that just asking the people who they voted for on the way to their cars isn't a great and reliable system? Why spend all this fact-finding research to put together an offical GOP statement?

In the past year, I've started to notice that everyone, even (or especially) the people in power, like to portray themselves as underdogs. They feel that everyone is out to get them. When immigration was hot news, people were running studies about how immigrants would take over the US with their higher birth rates and good work ethics. When the Supreme Court allowed Michael Schiavo to have his wife's feeding tube removed, people yelled that our rights were being trampled by the "activists". When the evolution vs. creationism (or "intelligent design") battle heated up, people were horrified that the giant scientific edifice was going to trample that plucky underdog Christianity.

After all, everyone knows that Christians are just a ragtag group of underfunded, persecuted, and harried people here in America. After all, they only make up ... 80% of the population! How can Christians in America do anything politically or socially when they have to face being in the supermajority? It's that godless and amoral 10% that's holding them back, curse this representative democracy!

Guess what? If you're in the majority and you find yourself unable to do some of the things you really want to do that effect everyone, the founding fathers are smiling. A lot of care and thought went into our political system to try to prevent the democratic (small "d") situation of the "tyranny of the majority." And even though a group may poll in the majority, in reality that group is made up of individuals who have their own ideas. I know scientists who are opposed to stem cell research, and I know devout Catholics who would support it.

No matter what creative polling and fancy spin might suggest, not everyone is in the minority. Not everyone is "under fire" or "threatened." Not everyone is having their values trampled by the gigantic opposition. When states that are traditionally pigeonholed into one party or another have candidate races that are statistically too close to call, that means that democracy is working. And if you think exit polls are anything other than an interesting number, you may need a reality check.

In addition to a course in political statistics.

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