The Pew study: they didn’t get the memo

On reconsideration, we may have been too tough on Pew in the post below. Perhaps they didn’t get the memo that said that a lot of things have changed in the last decade.

Pew has been using the same methodology for its study since at least 1993; you can see the summary here and the complete report here. Pew chose the same “opinion leader” types in 1993 that they did in 2005, despite the fact that some of those opinions have been in rather pronounced decline. It looks like they failed to note that a number of things changed in 1994, and that conservative thought and electoral success have been in somewhat of a bull market since then, as we have written. So we can perhaps pardon them for simply doing again what they have always done. A couple of quotes from Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which we cited in a previous piece, might be apt:

In a sense I am unable to explicate further, the proponents of competing paradigms practice their trades in different worlds. (p. 150)….The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced….

Darwin, in a particularly perceptive passage at the end of his Origin of Species, wrote: “Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume…, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are shocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine….[B]ut I look with confidence to the future, — to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to look at both sides of the question with impartiality.”

And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (p. 151)

Of course we are talking about politics, not science, but it is surely true that most people keep believing and practicing the things they have always known; change is a difficult and slow process. We’ll conclude with a quote from Roger Simon which captures both the idea of stubborn allegiances and the possible momentousness of change when it happens. He was writing of the November 2004 election results:

The Democrats lost in the last election much more seriously than is commonly understood. A swing of three million votes is gigantic in our society where party allegiances are formed in childhood and reinforced by an omnipresent media. We can see the primitiveness of these allegiances in the remaining popularity of Howard Dean, a man who a very few years ago presented himself as a pro-gun centrist, jumping around like a re-upped version of Jerry Rubin to appeal to a segment of the Democratic Party that hasn’t changed one view about anything in thirty-five years. But… and here’s the crux… these people are not that exceptional. Few of us change our views over a lifetime.

Yet, three million did.

We started this piece with the intention to cut Pew some slack. It does not appear intentional that they cited as opinion leaders people who immediately raised red flags for conservative commentators. Pew simply applied the same methodology that they have for years to an opinion survey. However, we’ll cut them only limited slack. It is not unfair to ask a polling and public opinion organization to note when significant changes occur, and make appropriate adjustments to those who count as opinion leaders. After all, public opinion is their business.

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