The Words of the Carlson Family

Poll Cats

Paul Carlson
June, 2002

This month we’re doing something light hearted. This article is about information, and also its counterparts, misunderstanding and falsehood. Many people collect and dispense these three. Trouble is, only a few can (usually) tell the difference. My favorite talk show host, Jim Eason, dubbed such ever-perceptive folks "poll cats."

I have a favorite quote: "Some people make things happen, some people watch what happens, and some people wonder what happened."

Unificationists make things happen. Years ago we plastered (and unplastered) all of Manhattan with event posters, literally overnight. Later on, in mere weeks, we ‘covered’ the entire USA with Divine Principle videos and One World Under God posters. Then we gathered ten million signatures. Recently, we hosted more than fifty large Speech Tour banquets, putting some together on just a few day’s notice.

What a far cry from being a couch potato -- and you’re never bored! But while you’re busy making things happen, it pays to stay informed.


Lots of people want to tell you things. One can find activists in a thousand arenas: promoting dark skies (for the sake of astronomers), lighting up crime-ridden areas, rescuing every kind of plant and animal, warning against unhealthy foods (everything but tofu and rice cakes?), and lobbying for new colors in M&M candies. Each of these causes, big and small, sometimes consume people’s entire lives and fortunes.

Savvy activists pour forth information, using controversial books, videos and pamphlets, loud demonstrations, faxes, and the Internet. It’s spicy enough, the news media amplifies it tremendously. Usually without bothering to check the facts, or pondering the consequences, or wondering whether the senders have a private agenda.

If this deluge merely confused millions of individuals, it would be bad enough. In reality, American laws, policies, and court decisions are often based upon this mishmash.

The United States is a participatory democracy. According to our Constitution, we elect representatives to handle the difficult business of government for us. However, states like California also have a direct-vote Initiative process. Politicians are relying on more and more on polling data, rather than their own intellectual or moral convictions. (Some do have them.)


It’s not that people aren’t aware of this. In their magazine American Journalism Review, writers, reporters, and editors remind themselves to get multiple sources, ask tougher questions, and double-check the facts. There are huge web sites, such as the New York Times Navigator, devoted to this purpose.

Opinion polls are among the slipperiest of claimants to reality. Polls are allegedly accurate because they have to be; corporations pay them tons of money to find out what their customers think. Despite those grandiose claims, election polls are often wrong, and products such as new colas and burgers do fall flat.

Pollsters are largely ideological, and the "results" they get can usually be tailored in advance. Who do they call, and when? What questions do they ask, and in what order? How are the results weighted and tabulated? They’ll never tell.

Worse yet, they ask questions like, "Do you think the terrorists will strike again?" Nobody really knows. They’ll ask detailed questions about America’s economic and foreign policy, when the person asked probably doesn’t know who fought in the Civil War, much less when; or how to calculate the interest on a credit card.

That doesn’t stop the pollsters from trying. At my (occasionally opportunistic) household we’ve received cheesy gifts for filling out some very intrusive surveys. Do you use bladder leakage products? They want to know!

Sometimes we’re just told things. Such as, when a new movie "breaks the record" upon its release. This is true -- and utterly misleading. Movie tickets were a dime, and in some places they’re now ten bucks. America used to have a hundred million people. Now it’s almost three times that many, and the number of theaters has kept pace.

When you adjust for these factors, Gone With the Wind remains the most successful movie of all time. True, it didn’t have to compete with TV, either. Looking at ‘production cost’ vs. ‘take,’ the most profitable was likely The Blair Witch Project.

Unemployment figures are always doing a yo-yo on the daily news. Remember, this measures the number of job seekers. It entails, among other factors, the number of new jobs created, and how many people are entering the work force.

Inflation is a complex issue. Politicians and bankers want to tell you it’s is low. One way they did this by removing housing costs from the index (the CPI). If they did count housing, for example, my dad’s house has undergone a 3500% price inflation, most of it in the past fifteen years. Great if you own the place; not so good if you’re a first-time buyer.

Gives you an idea of how complicated this stuff really is…


It really helps to check your facts. And to trust the recognized experts, even while getting a second, third, and fourth opinion.

This very column has fallen prey to misinformation. I once mentioned that "gay teens are three times more likely to commit suicide." In reality, while they have their problems, they are no more likely to off themselves than other teens. That error had been traced to a single social worker, quoted by a reporter who didn’t ask for verification. (There wasn’t any.)

A common foul-up is misquotes. A popular saying I once quoted (along with CAUSA and Paul Harvey) is Tocqueville’s, "America is great because she is good." Trouble is, he never said it.

Ditto with Lincoln’s, "You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich," etc. Those were written by the Rev. William Boetcker, and distributed in a pamphlet along with some actual Lincoln quotes.


The media usually does a horrible job of presenting science. PBS and the Discovery Channel do better, but they water things down, besides having a slant. Few people notice, because the citizenry is so ill-informed.

Decades ago, my mother’s "health food nut" friends combined wisdom and insight with a load of gibberish. One time they were ranting about how the evil Big Food Corporations are "burning salt," then selling us hapless consumers "the ashes."

Sounds alarming, unless you managed to stay awake in High School chemistry. Even as a child it was very frustrating. I am reminded of the scene in Coal Miner’s Daughter, in which Sissy Spacek’s character bakes Tommy Lee Jones a pie, and it turns out she doesn’t know the crucial difference between salt and sugar.

Here in California, some people wear gas masks to keep out horrible "environmental toxins." Marin County spent over a million dollars to build special, ultra-clean apartments for these sufferers. However, if you press the issue, most of them cannot specify even five such toxins, or their metabolites within the human body. (In the event, the "clean" places made them just as sick.)

Sometimes it gets downright silly. Currently the media is filled with ads for two types of health product for men. One kind promises to restore youthful vigor by boosting testosterone levels. The other promises to create hair growth by suppressing DHT, aka testosterone.

One wonders how many confused men are swallowing both kinds of (quite expensive)product. The real irony -- if not the crime -- is that neither type works at all!


There is hope. Many keen thinkers are working to promote information over its alternatives.

Dr. Dean Edell (though a secular humanist) promotes health-related common sense through his book and radio show.

Phillip Howard has a new book out, The Lost Art of Drawing the Line. He rails against silly court decisions and botched zero tolerance policies.

On the Internet, busts hoaxes and urban legends on a daily basis. Also, keeps on eye on media excesses.

The magazine American Journalism Review is a great source. Our own Washington Times and Paragon House are spreading the right information in large doses.

Common sense is required. Ask some hard questions. What would your grandmother say?

Use your personal faith and conscience as a guide. Far from quashing truth and inquiry (a la Galileo vs. the Inquisition), an absolute moral standard can provide a stable base from which to weigh the information stream.

Do say hello for me to the next pollster who calls.

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