Unravelling the enigma: The perils of prediction and the elusive science of foretelling the future

In the intriguing article “Many a Wintry Blast,” the elusive art of prediction faces scrutiny, revealing why it might never truly transform into a science. Delving into the motivations behind humanity’s desire to glimpse the future, the piece explores the monetary allure of foreseeing outcomes. Yet, the pursuit of certainty in the unpredictable landscape of politics and consumer behaviour remains fraught with challenges. Over a century, opinion polling emerged, influencing political and commercial decisions. However, recent high-profile failures have cast doubt on its reliability. The industry, grappling with declining participation and hidden errors, navigates the “dirty secret” of manipulated data and the enigmatic “Margin of Error.” Ultimately, the intricate endeavour of prediction remains an enigma, defying easy categorisation. The article was first published on FirstRand Perspectives.

Opinion Polling

By Peter Dearlove

Many a wintry blast

Pitfalls of prediction and why this particular art may never become a science.

Why do people want to know what the future holds before it happens? In the first place, of course, there is a lot of money in it; betting and investing only on certainties, for example, is a surefire path to riches. More importantly, perhaps, if you knew a bullet was coming your way, you would be better able to deflect it, dodge it, or leave town and avoid it altogether. Over the past 100 years, this underlying wisdom has been developed and refined for political and marketing purposes under the name of opinion polling with great success. Fortunes have been made by correctly predicting what people will do, and the prediction business has multiplied to the point where today, thousands of polling companies beavering away night and day all over the known world, trying to work out what people think and will do next. The field they cover is vast – everything from who you will vote for to your next choice of paint stripper or alcoholic beverage.

Lately, however, the political wing of this busy industry has met with several spectacular failures, and influential people are asking why. In Britain, the question has gone to the House of Lords, which immediately set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate. Undoubtedly an excellent subject for a latter-day Gilbert and Sullivan operetta?

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The science (if it may be so called) of predicting outcomes from opinion polling is founded on the idea that a sample can represent the whole; if you know what ten people think, you can more or less say, for more or less sure, what 100 like-minded people believe, and so on. When someone like George Gallup first proposed this idea in the 1930s and then quickly proved his point, polling became a sensation for commercial and political fortune-telling. It soon became a handy little torch to reach for if you were unsure of your next political or commercial move.

Gallup polling is nearly a hundred years old now. As it closes in on its first century, it is such an established part of our lives that scarcely a day goes by without the news media telling us what people’s opinions are and what their intentions mean for everyone’s future. It has become an obsession. Politicians and producers of consumer goods have gotten used to moulding their policies and plans to accord with what people think and, thus, presumably, want from them.

And so, it was no great surprise that when polling began posting bum predictions, it was like the sky falling in for Chicken Licken. The four recent catastrophes of note included a US Presidential Election, two UK General Elections, and a UK referendum on membership of the European Union.

You would need a long memory to recall any previous failure of such magnitude. Back in 1936, the highly respected Literary Digest polled almost a million readers and confidently predicted that Alf Landon would beat Franklin Roosevelt 57% – 43% in the coming presidential election. Roosevelt won 62% – 37%. Then in the 1948 presidential race, several major polling organisations, including Mr Gallup’s outfit, forecast a landslide victory for Thomas Dewey. Does anyone remember that name/ Of course not; he was whipped into oblivion by Harry Truman.

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The industry itself is worried and looking for answers. They have come up with an exciting admission, mysteriously dubbed polling’s dirty little secret. The ‘secret’ is why finding people willing to be polled is getting harder. In the past, a session with a pollster could be quick and easy, sometimes taking only seconds to answer only one question. To ensure that whoever is being asked is truly a representative sample, you may have to answer more questions about yourself than the survey subject. But ‘dirty’? That’s a hard one to fathom. Unless you accept the additional secret that sometimes polls and poll results are ‘spun’ or even deliberately falsified, which can and does happen because the rewards are enormous. Here, the ‘sheep factor’ is partly to blame – the tendency to want to follow the flock. If you can fool them into believing that all the others are voting for Gertrude, then they will too. However, the real villain in the story is a little chap called Margin of Error.

While it is a fact that a part can be a mirror image of the whole, there are lots of ifs, buts and maybes. The more complex the whole, the more complex must be a representative sample. In current political polls today the margin of error is usually quoted as plus or minus 3%, which means 19 times out of 20, the figures predicted will be within 3% of the answer you’d get if you had been able to interview the entire population involved. But everyone knows it’s much bigger than that when you factor in the difficulty of getting respondents. Calculations assume that the sample is random and that every member of the ‘whole’ involved would have had an equal chance of being selected to be questioned.

There is another secret, though, which no one wants to discuss. It is the increasingly pervasive untraceable error of deliberate fudging. Confronted by political questioning, many people make up their answers as they go along. Some even deliberately say the opposite of what they think and plan. No one can say how big a factor this is, but it is there, and it hangs over all predictions based on polling.

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As Leo Burnett, an advertising guru of the Madison Avenue era, told his clients, you can find out many things about people, except what they want or are going to do.

“The public does not know what it wants. There is no sure way of finding out until the idea is exposed under normal conditions. If people could tell you in advance what they want, there would never have been a wheel, a lever, much less an automobile, an aeroplane or a TV set.”.

Or Horace: “Do not ask, for you cannot know what the future, what tomorrow will bring. Full many a wintry blast may yet await you, or this could be your last”

South African sportsman. At that event in San Jose, I felt even prouder to celebrate a very special and little-known South African innovator and entrepreneur. Another gem for your trivia collection!

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