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Trending Toward Inanity (cont’d)

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What’s more amazing is this: A page earlier, Penn argues that the rise in lefties has nothing to do with there being more lefties, and everything to do with more permissive parenting. In other words, where children used to be trained out of left-handedness, now parents “shrug their shoulders, saying it’s okay.” So not only does Penn fail to prove that lefties are genetically different in some important way, he also suggests that the gene pool is no different, and that there are as many of them around now as always. It’s a fallacy atop an error built around something that isn’t happening.

This isn’t an isolated example. In a chapter called “Aspiring Snipers,” Penn explains, “It’s the rare moment when a poll stops me in my tracks and reorients my understanding of things.” One such poll was conducted last fall, when Bendixen and Associates asked 601 young Californians what they’d be doing in 10 years. About 1 percent–so, a handful–said they’d be snipers. Certainly, that’s an odd reply. But Penn never mentions that the Bendixen poll had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 4 percent–four being a larger number than one. Additionally, it’s meaningless without further study. Anyone in the age bracket would attribute it to video games, or snipers being, let’s admit it, quite cool. Yet Penn, based on no follow-up interviews, detects a “new patriotism,” and a desire “to master complex mathematical formulas like how distance or wind might affect the path of the bullet.” This simply isn’t professional work. (It is bitter, though. Penn concludes the chapter by complaining, “Ask anyone in politics and they will agree–they face ‘snipers’ every day who are trying to find one flinch, one out-of-place word to put on Drudge or YouTube.” It takes a special sort of self-regard to compare the danger of being embedded on YouTube to being hunted down in urban warfare.)

Elsewhere, Penn conflates one poll on attitudes toward the religion of Islam with attitudes toward American Muslims. At times, he mixes percentages and absolute values for scare effect, as when he darkly warns that if one-tenth of one percent of our population–300,000 people–turned to al Qaeda, it would be “more than enough to destabilize our society.” Sometimes he just discards data, as when he conveniently decides to ignore his evidence that churchgoers reject female ministers and speculates that “consensus and compassion may be on the outs right now, but they are bound to make a comeback,” which is all the argument he needs to say “we are also ready for the first female Billy Graham.” And on, and on.

All this is in service of his concept that “microtrends” now govern our world: “It takes 1 percent of people making a dedicated choice–contrary to the mainstream’s choice–to create a movement that can change the world,” Penn writes. Why 1 percent? Who knows? Penn doesn’t stick to it himself. Sometimes, it’s one-tenth of one percent, as in his al Qaeda example, or 10 percent, as with lefties, or sometimes it’s the microtrend of–I kid you not–the tens of millions of Americans who moved to the suburbs in the 20th century. Toward the book’s end, Penn says the “magic of the 1 percent threshold” is that “ten people with bazookas can overcome 1,000 people with picket signs, but they can’t overcome 10,000 people with picket signs.” Chew on that one, grasshopper.

As microchapter after microchapter passed, reviewing this book began to feel like dropping a grenade into a barrel of fish. But Microtrends is illuminating. Pollsters occupy a uniquely powerful space in American political discourse: They bring science to elections. Armed with heaps of raw data, they elevate their opinions into something altogether weightier: Conclusions. When an organization sends out a press release saying the organization is right, it’s ignored. When a pollster sends out a poll showing the electorate agrees, ears in Washington perk up.

The enterprise has always been dodgy. Populist pollsters reliably discover that the electorate thirsts for more populism. Conservative pollsters routinely discover a small government consensus pulsing at the heart of the body politic. When the libertarian Cato Institute commissioned a poll of the electorate, they found–shockingly–that the essential swing vote was made of libertarians. Remarkably, whenever a politician or self-interested institution releases a poll, the results show a symmetry between the attitudes of the pollster’s employer and those of the voters. But Penn’s book shines light on this phenomenon: If he is the pinnacle of his profession, then the profession uses numbers as a ruse–a superficial empiricism that obscures garden-variety hackery. And that’s a trend worth worrying about.

Ezra Klein is a staff writer at the American Prospect who blogs regularly at www.ezraklein.com.

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