Examining the entrails

Haruspicy is the practice of divination through the entrails of animals. The Roman priest who conducted the rite was an haruspex.

This is, of course, by no means the sole method by which omens of the future are to be descried. A look at references on the –mancy words will show a multitude: ailuromancy, the observation of how cats jump; bibliomancy, opening certain texts, such as the Bible, at random for guidance; nephelomancy, the observation of cloud formations; scapulamancy, interpretation of the cracks in the charred shoulder bone of a sheep — you get the drift.

As our interminable presidential election lumbers to its conclusion, I have come to suspect that that the network and cable news programs and newspapers might as well have employed haruspices from the start.

Item: The repeated assertion that one candidate is ahead of another by one or two percentage points, on the basis of a poll in which the margin of error is three and a half percentage points. And often, in a poll in which we are not told what questions we asked to which people.

Item: I hear cryptic references to a “poll of polls” on CNN and, turning to cnn.com, find that the “poll of polls” is an average of various polls. That anyone can take a set of polls conducted at different times, among different population samples and with differently worded questions to arrive at an “average” more reliable than the observation of a flight of birds astonishes me.

Of course, as a journalist woefully uneducated in mathematics, it may be my ignorance of the manipulation of these magic numbers that leads to skepticism. Anyone better informed about statistics and statistical analysis is welcome to chime in with comments.

Item: The perception-distorting electronic maps in use. All the gee-whiz special-effect maps still represent the states with their geographical boundaries. Redrawing those maps by their population sizes, or even Electoral College votes, would give the viewer a much more realistic sense of the voting dynamic. As I pointed out previously, New York City, with 8 million people, has a population greater than the states of Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming combined. And while New York state gets two electoral votes for its senators, and the other six states get 12.

I am an American by birth, I’ve been following presidential campaigns since 1964 and voting in them since 1972. I understand how relentlessly they depend on slogans and catchphrases — the 1840 log-cabin-and-hard-cider campaign that elected William Henry Harrison being the dumbest of the lot and the pattern for many later ones.* I am aware that candidates of all parties and persuasions will stand in public and mechanically repeat misrepresentations of fact — and outright falsehoods.

But I am also a journalist, and I would like to see my colleagues across the media bring a little more knowledge and sophistication to coverage of these carnival events than is required to observe how cats jump.


* Before anyone starts questioning this allusion, I did not settle on the Harrison campaign because it involved an elderly retired military officer running as an “outsider” against an administration that had presided over an economic collapse. That is purely coincidental.



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