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In Spring 2019 some polls emerged which heralded Joe Biden leading over other Democratic candidates to a suspicious degree. For instance a national CNN / SRSS poll (and a Monmouth poll for New Hampshire) concluded that Joe Biden had a nearly twenty point lead over Bernie Sanders, virtually overnight. As has been pointed out by various political analysts e.g. Jordan Chariton, Jimmy Dore, Mike Figueredo etc. these polls are skewed since they over-represent the views of people age 50 or older and under-represent the views of younger people. Of course, CNN did not reveal this contextual fact about how such polls were conducted. As with the pro-Hillary super-delegates of 2016, the effect on the viewing public of these (skewed) polls is to bias people in favor of voting for the current corporately preferred candidate - Joe Biden.

When people like Jordan Chariton etc. are disparaged on e.g. Twitter by corporatists for revealing the apparent propaganda described above, they are criticized for ignoring the fact that historically, more older people have tended to vote Democratically than younger people, so the above poll results (contrary to progressive criticisms) are unsurprising.

However, this corporatist reply is disingenuous in three ways.

First, it ignores the point that since 2016, many more young people have voted than ever before - perhaps we need to take the views of those people seriously and not regard them as a blip in the historical trend (and at least report this as a possibility on CNN when announcing poll results). Second, why weren’t a sufficient number of people under 50 included in these polls - even if Democratic voters have historically been older, why exclude younger people in this current poll? Because the pollster tendentiously assumes that the future will probably be like the past? (This is the assumption that this article is most critical of.)

Thirdly, the whole notion of the meaningfulness of even an objective unbiased poll (let alone a skewed one) is problematic. The media is currently bombarding viewers with misleading pro-Biden polls in order to sway popular opinion in his favor (despite his horrible record). People will vote depending on who they believe is leading in the polls (and the corporate media fix it so that the corporate candidate, whether it be e.g. Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump, or Joe Biden is favored).

The point which is not often made in criticism of polling in general (and of skewed polling involving progressive candidates) is that the MSM are using a ‘common sense’ but faulty way of thinking which most accept - that cause and effect relationships in the future will probably resemble cause and effect relationships in the past. Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume (in his ‘Enquiry Into Human Understanding’ (1748) addressed this issue (and would have been read by many ‘founding fathers’). The main point is that we have no rational justification to believe that the future will resemble the past in general - that we do accept this is a matter of conditioning (and as far as politics in particular is concerned, the MSM plays a large part in such conditioning).

Hume distinguishes between relations of ideas and matters of fact, and claims that we can only have knowledge of matters of fact via some sort of sensory experience. When it comes to unobserved events, which are ‘beyond the present testimony of our senses, or the records of our memory’, what sort of evidence do we have to assure ourselves that such events will really occur? Hume points out that no contradiction arises in claiming that e.g. the sun will not rise tomorrow. However, if it can’t be shown via a deductively valid inference that e.g. the sun will rise tomorrow, what does justify belief in this sort of claim about an unobserved matter of fact?

Hume claims that all reasoning regarding (unobserved) matters of fact seems founded on the idea of cause and effect. This is the notion which (at first glance) allows us to ‘go beyond’ the evidence of our senses and that of memory, and which apparently warrants beliefs about unobserved matters of fact. However, when we examine the idea of causality, we see that we never actually observe such a thing as a ‘cause’. We just experience on many occasions that one kind of event is closely followed by another kind of event, and then come to judge that every time the first event is present, it will be closely followed by the other event (i.e. we judge that the first event ‘causes’ the second).

However, Hume asks, how do we get knowledge of cause and effect? We certainly can’t acquire knowledge of cause and effect relationships in an a priori way. We can’t know, independently of experience, e.g. why milk, or bread, is proper nourishment for a human being, but not for a lion or tiger, as Hume points out. Since the effect is completely distinct from the cause, the effect cannot be discovered merely by thinking about the nature of the cause. For example, the motion of the second billiard ball (after it is struck) is completely distinct from the motion of the first billiard ball (which strikes the second). Similarly, Hume points out that one cannot know a priori (independently of experience) that a stone will fall to the ground, rather than float upwards.

So, if we are to be justified in beliefs about unobserved events, since that justification must come from knowledge of cause and effect relations, cause and effect requires justification. Hume asks: what is the foundation of all (cause/effect) conclusions based on experience? The answer, Hume claims, is that we expect similar effects to be produced by similar causes; i.e. we expect nature to be uniform (this idea has been referred to as the ‘principle of the uniformity of nature’). Again, one might ask: what justifies this expectation? As Hume writes, experience

‘only shows us a number of uniform effects, resulting from certain objects, and teaches us that those particular objects, at that particular time, were endowed with such powers and forces. When a new object, endowed with similar sensible qualities, is produced, we expect similar powers and forces, and look for a like effect. From a body of like color and consistence with bread we expect like nourishment and support. But this surely is a step or progress of the mind, which wants to be explained. When a man says, I have found, in all past instances, such sensible qualities conjoined with such secret powers: and when he says, similar sensible qualities will always be conjoined with similar secret powers, he is not guilty of a tautology, nor are these propositions in any respect the same. You say that the one proposition is an inference from the other. But you must confess that the inference is not intuitive, neither is it demonstrative: Of what nature is it, then?’

The inference Hume mentions here, involving bread, is meant to illustrate a general problem of explaining the nature and justification of inferences about unobserved cases. Bread, which has certain ‘sensible qualities’ – e.g. color, texture, etc. has had the ‘secret power’ of nourishment in the past. From having observed a connection between these ‘sensible qualities’ and ‘secret power’ of nourishment on many different occasions, one expects that bread will continue to have this ‘secret power’ in the future. If we suppose some inference is going on here, justifying the expectation, what is its nature? (Hume, of course, is skeptical that anyone will be able to explain the nature of any inference here, since he is of the opinion that there is no actual inference at all – we don’t have any rational grounds for believing that nature is uniform, or that the future will resemble the past.) We must admit that the idea that nature is uniform can’t be justified on a priori grounds. One can’t know, on the basis of reason alone, that the laws of nature that have had no known exceptions up to the present will not break down tomorrow, or that similar effects will continue to be produced by similar causes.

However, neither can one appeal to experience (of observed similar effects having been produced by similar causes) in order to justify the idea that this uniformity of nature will persist, since

‘all inferences from experience suppose, as their foundation, that the future will resemble the past, and that similar powers will be conjoined with similar sensible qualities. If there be any suspicion that the course of nature may change, and that the past may be no rule for the future, all experience becomes useless, and can give rise to no inference or conclusion. It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future; since all these arguments are founded on the supposition of that resemblance.’

In other words, to infer that similar causes will continue to produce similar effects in the future because similar causes have produced similar effects up until now is to tacitly presuppose the truth of the very issue in question, namely, that nature will continue to be uniform. The appeal to one’s experience of similar causes having produced similar effects in the past cannot serve as good reason to think that nature will continue to be uniform (or even that it is likely to continue to be uniform) unless one also assumes that the future will resemble the past; however that is the very point at issue. Any argument which just assumes, as one of its premisses, the truth of a questionable conclusion which the argument is intended to prove, will not convince anyone who does not already agree with that conclusion.

In which case, just as Hume’s argument calls into question the rationality of believing that the next time you throw something into the air it will fall back down, it questions the rationality of believing that since candidate x is shown in polls to be most popular at the moment and that kind of candidate has historically been successful, he or she is most likely to win in a future election.

In which case, from a rational perspective, polls are meaningless as far as providing a reasonable indication regarding the issue of who is most likely to win in some future election is concerned. Their main purpose of polling in modern politics is propaganda. Voters should focus on a politicians’ history and current policies, not on how they are polling, when deciding how to vote.