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December 06, 2012 11:46 AM The Panetta-Burns Statistic

By James Wimberley

Chuckles all round about PPP´s poll asking for opinions on the nonexistent ¨Panetta-Burns¨ deficit reduction plan (8% for and 17% against) and whether defunct ACORN stole the 2012 election (49% of Republicans think so).

Perhaps this is more than a nice once-off gag. Double-blind clinical trials of new medicines calibrate them against placebos and white coats, which usually have some effect. Lie detection sessions are calibrated on questions known to be true and known to be false.

Including phony questions systematically in polls would give an indication of the attention the public is paying to the issue, or at any rate to the pollster´s question. Informed pollees may just be taking the mickey. But the mickey-takers are there anyway, creating error. A ringer question flushes some of them out.

Imagine a Presidential election poll.

If the election were held tomorrow, who would you vote for?
Mitt Romney, Republican Party
Barack Obama, Democratic Party
Gary Johnson, Libertarian Party
Jill Stein, Green Party
James Wimberley, Eurocrat Party

Since the election was very important and media coverage was beyond saturation, the ringer (me) would get a near-zero response. Not so, as PPP has shown, for a highly technical and artificial Beltway flap like the fiscal cliff. You could call the percentage response the ¨Panetta-Burns statistic¨.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

James Wimberley was head of the mutual assistance section of the department of education for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and secretary to the Councils higher education and research committee. He is retired.
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