We all live in a yellow submarine

We all live in a yellow submarine March 6, 2024

The folks at the Pew Research Center have been studying the problem of “bogus respondents.” This is a tricky thing — an attempt to collect “data” in the hopes of measuring how and why their attempts to collect data don’t always work.

The results are interesting, although I don’t think they mean what Pew thinks they mean:

Several recent studies have documented large errors in online opt-in surveys due to the presence of so-called “bogus respondents.” These respondents do not answer questions sincerely; instead, they attempt to complete surveys with as little effort as possible to earn money or other rewards.

Studies have shown that bogus respondents can cause opt-in surveys to overestimate rare attitudes and behaviors, such as ingesting bleach to protect against COVID-19, belief in conspiracies like Pizzagate or support for political violence.

… Bogus respondents may be identifying this way in order to bypass screening questions that might otherwise prevent them from receiving a reward, though the precise reasons are difficult to pin down. Whatever the underlying cause, the result can be unreliable estimates for those groups.

 

For example, in a February 2022 survey experiment, we asked opt-in respondents if they were licensed to operate a class SSGN (nuclear) submarine. In the opt-in survey, 12% of adults under 30 claimed this qualification, significantly higher than the share among older respondents. In reality, the share of Americans with this type of submarine license rounds to 0%.

The question about being licensed to operate “a class SSGN (nuclear) submarine” seemed like a useful tool for measuring “bogus respondents” because it allowed the researchers to contrast the response with an established, known reality. Almost nobody is actually licensed to operate a nuclear sub, even in the Navy. So if your respondents tell you they are, you can be confident their answers are not accurate.

But this question is also absurd. And I don’t think the folks at Pew appreciate that absurd questions invite absurd answers.

This is particularly true when the absurd question is tossed in with a bunch of more serious and substantial questions. The shift in tone and substance is bound to strike many respondents as jarring — as surprising, incongruous, and a bit silly. The question, in other words, is funny. It seems like a joke. Jokes invite participation. Jokes call for reciprocity.

Ask a funny question and you’ll get some funny answers.

That’s not what Pew was trying to study here — they were worried about more serious and specific matters involving the reliability of opt-in online polling. But what they found, instead, was an answer to the question: What percentage of people under 30 will joke around just to mess with you when you ask them an obviously weird question?

That answer, they report, is 12%.

That seems low. For any age group.

It seems especially low for younger people who are chronologically closer to the high-stakes absurdity of taking the SATs and PSATs and other standardized testing — an experience that invited, but did not allow for, the kind of rebellion that could be expressed here by (what the heck, why not?) telling Pew Research that, yeah, sure, I’m licensed to operate a nuclear sub, and I’m an astronaut too, isn’t everybody?

That answer is false. It is untrue and inaccurate. But I don’t think it’s “bogus” because it’s transparently false and inaccurate. These respondents were, I suspect, honestly trying to yank Pew’s chain or bust their balls or eff with their data. Dishonesty and insincerity don’t seem like an accurate characterization of someone who looks you in the eye and says, “See this monkey wrench here in my hand? I’m gonna throw this into the gears of your machine. Ready? Here goes.”

This question about nuclear submarines invited such rebellious responses because it was a question that seems to have no clear connection to any actual real-world stakes or consequences. After all, if Pew really needed to know what percentage of the populace was licensed to operate a nuclear sub, they could — and should — just ask the Navy. The perversity of attempting to answer such a question with a poll outstrips the perversity of any bogus response.

And that tips off respondents to the fact that Pew isn’t really trying to measure what they claim to be trying to measure. It demonstrates that the question itself is bogus, disingenuous, and untrustworthy. That ought to set off alarm bells for respondents.

Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

Wendell Berry wrote “The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in 1973 — back when computer databases consisted of punchcards filed in the drawers of physical cabinets. People under 30 may not remember punchcards, but they’ve lived their whole lives being tracked and measured and marketed by the same “generals and politicos” Berry talks about in his wild poem. So they understand the impulse and the wisdom of what the Mad Farmer describes:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. …

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

This contrary perversity “is not the only or the easiest way to come to the truth,” Berry wrote, years later, in another of his Mad Farmer poems, but “it is one way.” And it is one way that appeals to younger people, particularly when they’re dealing with older people who haven’t proved trustworthy and who seem interested only in measuring, categorizing, and thereby controlling them.

To be willfully, deliberately unruly is often a good thing — or, at least, it is far preferable to its opposite, which would be to be willfully, deliberately ruly. (We don’t tend to use that word without its negating prefix, but think about what it would mean. Nothing good.)

So I think Pew is misinterpreting the responses to its nuclear sub question. These aren’t bogus respondents telling lies about themselves. Some of them are just joking around in response to a question that seems like a joke. And others are, very seriously, seizing the chance to say, “I do not trust you to collect data about me.”

Both of those can be prudent, utterly appropriate responses whenever The Powers That Be ask us questions that we suspect may be used to measure, control, and otherwise rule our lives.

This is related to another increasingly common form of polling and surveying in which I would argue that we are obliged to respond by trying to game the results. This is what I refer to as “Likert Scale Solidarity” — the moral duty for every non-boss to give other non-bosses five-star ratings, 10-out-of-10 scores, and “strongly agree” perfection on every survey the bosses compel those workers to plead with their neighbors to take. It doesn’t matter if your Uber driver’s car smelled funny, if you give that driver anything less than five stars you’re helping a bunch of billionaires steal money from some poor bastard who’s just trying to scrape out a living. And taking the side of those billionaires does, in fact, make you the Bad Guy or — even worse — the obsequious, ruly toady of the Bad Guys.

But both joking around and being deliberately rebellious can also curdle into dangerous habits. It can turn into a kind of automatic contrariness or even into the lazy nihilism of the worst parts of the internet. It can, in other words, turn you into a Greenwald or a 4channer — into the kind of person who not only gives perverse responses to pollsters but who tells yourself perverse lies. You can become a person who doesn’t merely supply bogus responses, but a person who is bogus, and proud of it.

And that will make you both ruly and unfunny. It will mean you are no longer rebelling, but serving the interests of TPTB who seek to predict and control you.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

Etc.

“It is necessary to the happiness of man, that he be mentally faithful to himself,” Thomas Paine wrote:

Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief, if I may so express it, that mental lying has produced in society. When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.

The “moral mischief” Paine describes is nothing like the whimsical mischief of some kid who says, “Yeah, sure, I drive a nuclear sub. WTF?” in response to a weird question from pollsters. It is nothing like the mischievous solidarity of workers strongly disagreeing with the class war surveys from the bosses. And it is nothing like the rebellious mischief of the Mad Farmer and the monkey wrench gang raging against the machine.

He’s describing the corrosive effect of basing one’s identity on something one knows — or suspects — to be unreal and untrue. Paine and C.S. Lewis would not have seen eye to eye on many things, but what Paine is describing here is the same thing Lewis said was “the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils.”

Which brings us back to the very serious matters Pew was trying to address with it’s funny question about nuclear submarines. Their concerns about the reliability of online opt-in polls stemmed from:

… a recent online opt-in survey that had a startling finding about Holocaust denial among young Americans. The survey, fielded in December 2023, reported that 20% of U.S. adults under 30 agree with the statement, “The Holocaust is a myth.” This alarming finding received widespread attention from the news media and on social networks.

From a survey science perspective, the finding deserved a closer look. It raised both of the red flags in the research literature about bogus respondents: It focused on a rare attitude (Holocaust denial), and it involved a subgroup frequently “infiltrated” by bogus respondents (young adults).

Other questions asked in that December opt-in poll also pointed to a need for scrutiny. In the same poll, about half of adults under 30 (48%) expressed opposition to legal abortion. This result is dramatically at odds with rigorous polling from multiple survey organizations that consistently finds the rate of opposition among young adults to be much lower.

Pew sees these questions about the Holocaust and about abortion as wholly distinct from their control question about nuclear submarine operators. But they’re very much the same kind of question in that they are all very much not questions whose answers can be found by surveying 100 people and putting the top answers on the board.

This ain’t a game of Family Feud. Reality is not a popularity contest.

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