Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Asked & Answered



“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter.
It is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

- Mark Twain

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Several weeks ago, I was clearing out my vastly overcrowded email in-box and came across an e-survey regarding pressing issues of the day from NY Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. I’m on her email distribution list because I really like her. Overall, she seems like one of the good guys (or at least as close to good as politicians get these days).

I began answering the survey questions but it quickly became apparent that there were flaws in the way the questions and / or answers were written.

Though I’m idealistic by nature, I’m not naïve. I understand that this survey was intended for Gillibrand’s constituents. She didn’t send it to ultra-conservatives she wanted to convert. She needs statistical credibility to justify her positions on the issues and to help her prioritize what she spends her time fighting for. However, as written, the credibility of each question, the survey, and by extension, the very integrity of her positions on the issues is compromised. The objective of this post is to explore why that is and what to do about it.

But before I do, I want to point out that most or all politicians do exactly the same thing with their surveys. Gillibrand’s just happened to be the one that slid onto my radar.

Let's get to it! Here's a perfect example of what I’m talking about.

President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA despite the fact that Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on climate change and opposed efforts to stop it. Do you think it’s important for the EPA to be led by someone who accepts the science on climate change?

  1.     Yes, the EPA should accept the reality of climate change and take action to stop it.
  2.     No, it’s not a problem if the EPA ignores science.

The question paragraph is well-written, but both of the answers are problematic.

I resolutely believe the “Yes” option but look at it closely. It doesn’t actually answer the question. It answers a related question about the perspective of the institution overall. It doesn’t address the matter of who should lead the EPA. Even so, I’d likely pick “Yes” anyway because it’s ‘true-ish’ in the context of the question, particularly in light of the “No” wording.

Now, let’s take a look at “No.” I don’t know about you, but if I had doubts about the validity or severity of the effects of climate change, I would be reluctant, even embarrassed to select “No.” Why? Because the wording implies that I’m either ignorant myself or willing to tolerate ignorance in a major government agency.

So, what’s a respondent to do? Answer the ‘true-ish’ “Yes”? Or declare my ignorance by supporting ignorance with “No”?

My core concern with the question as a whole is that the way it’s set up makes it very obvious what the ‘correct’ answer is supposed to be. And that’s not the only question that’s worded that way. The underlying message inherent in the two response options is, ‘Do you agree with me or do you not care about facts?’ It’s kind of insulting. In terms of tone, the survey question above may as well have been as follows:

President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the KPA (Kitten Protection Agency) despite the fact that  Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on kitten adorableness and opposed efforts to be kind to them. Do you think it’s important for the KPA to be led by someone who accepts the science on kitten adorableness?
 

  1. Yes, the KPA should accept the reality of kitten adorableness and take action to protect them. 
  2. No, it’s not a problem if the KPA ignores science and allows kittens to be strangled.

The underlying message? “Do you agree with me or do you hate kittens?”

This is no small matter. Taken as a whole, the imprecisely-worded answers create an impression that the survey is explicitly constructed to elicit specific answers. As noted above, this compromises the credibility of all the data gathered.

However, with a few simple edits, we can clean up this semantic oil slick. This is not just a empty grammatical exercise in wordsmithing. It’s about
conveying meaning in a focused and objective manner. It's about using language like a fencing epee rather than a sledgehammer.

Take a look at these more neutral and precisely-worded versions of the answers.

President Trump nominated Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA despite the fact that Pruitt has denied the scientific consensus on climate change and opposed efforts to stop it. Do you think it’s important for the EPA to be led by someone who accepts the science on climate change?
 

  1. Yes, the EPA should be led by someone who accepts the reality of climate change and is willing to take action to stop it. 
  2. No, I don’t feel it’s important.

The “Yes” response now specifically addresses the question.

The “No” response is conclusive and judgment-free. It respects the respondent’s opinion even if it’s not the one the writer is hoping for.

I’m sure you can see how these simple techniques, spiced with a dash of common courtesy, particularly in the deeply-fractured  and fact-challenged country we live in, can not only be valued in ways that go far beyond a simple survey question, but potentially transformative.

The power of words remains indomitable.

Thanks for reading.



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2 comments:

  1. Please send this to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand again. Include FOX News on that list as well. And the White House, for necessary measure lol -C.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I did actually send it to Gillibrand but alas, got no response. If I turn up missing anytime soon, please contact her office to find out where she hid the body... :-)

    As for Fox News, I'm not sure they'd understand it...

    ReplyDelete