Column: Bias in surveys, etc.

A manufactured crisis; the conventions of opinion writing; coping mechanisms for survey laggards. Published on January 12, 2010.

Yesterday’s editorial piqued my curiosity. “Not least, the history of the Court itself belies [Rep. Matias] Defensor’s contention that the office of Chief Justice had never been vacant, not even for a day.” Good thing the Supreme Court maintains one of the better government websites.

On sc.judiciary.gov.ph, we can find a list of the country’s chief justices, going all the way back to Cayetano Arellano. There are a few mistakes on the list that even a non-lawyer can spot and which can easily be remedied, such as Manuel Moran’s date of retirement (May 29, 1951, not 1966) or the order of Roberto Concepcion’s successors (Querube Makalintal came before Fred Ruiz Castro). But in it too, Defensor can find the perfect rebuttal to his arguments.

The Court has never had an acting chief justice? Look up Claudio Teehankee, the great dissenter who first served, for almost a month, as acting chief before being named the first chief justice after Edsa.

The office of chief justice has never been vacant? The very first succession, when Victorino Mapa replaced Arellano in April 1920, was marked by a vacancy that lasted a couple of weeks. Postwar, there were more such vacancies. Cesar Bengzon did not succeed Ricardo Paras until more than two months had passed, and almost five months passed before Makalintal formally replaced Concepcion.

To be sure, the transitions after Edsa have been seamless, with the successor taking office either on the same day or the day after the chief justice’s retirement. There is, however, one exception: A couple of days passed before Andres Narvasa succeeded Marcelo Fernan, who had resigned to run for vice president. (Unfortunately, the statesman from Cebu was running against Joseph Estrada.)

* * *

Last week’s column, in which I criticized the ABS-CBN news team for performing on the “Ako ang Simula” music video, generated a tsunami of text messages and a brief rain shower of e-mails and online posts (starting with Maria Ressa’s class act of a response). I spent half of Tuesday responding to the messages.

A couple of reactions (not from any of my friends in the ABS-CBN newsroom, just to be clear) I found instructive—in the sense that they illustrate what can go wrong when expressing opinion: a tone of condescension, a failure to understand the conventions of opinion writing, an inability to closely read what is being criticized.

Since everything is material, I’ve decided to use these comments in a workshop on opinion writing this Saturday, organized by campus journalists from Ateneo de Manila and De La Salle University. The opinion racket, I hope to make clear, is not and cannot merely be a matter of expressing one’s opinion.

* * *

Electoral politics in the Philippines has reached the point where candidacies live or die by the survey. No candidate will admit as much, however, because there is almost no appeal to the scientifically sound survey. There is very little wiggle room.

The responses of Ernesto Maceda, the ex-senator and ex-ambassador who now runs Joseph Estrada’s second presidential campaign, and of presidential adviser Prospero Pichay, an ally of administration candidate Gilbert Teodoro, to the latest surveys making the rounds demonstrate the limited range of options a politician has for dealing with survey results.

Allege bias. When Maceda heard about the Manny Villar-commissioned survey, he dismissed it outright—because it was commissioned by Villar. This is a disservice, not only to Social Weather Stations, but to Maceda’s own candidate, who has cherry-picked results from previous SWS surveys to prove whatever needs proving: that he never lost the support of his constituency even during his plunder trial, that he continues to enjoy the trust of the people.

The track record of polling organizations like SWS and Pulse Asia consists both of surveys that were conducted on their own account and surveys that were commissioned by private parties. In other words, the robust reputation SWS and Pulse Asia currently enjoy is based in part on privately commissioned surveys too; their work here cannot be divorced from their other work. (Indeed, I understand that SWS requires private parties to share the commissioned survey’s results with the public after a maximum of three years.)

Redefine victory. Pichay concedes that anti-administration sentiment has affected Teodoro’s survey ratings. But if Teodoro breaches the 15-percent mark, “tapos na ang boksing [game over].” He said: “If we have 15 percent approval rating, plus the 25 percent that will be delivered by the machinery, I am sure the next president will be Gilberto Teodoro. The most important survey would be the one in February.”

This, I’m afraid, is just so much whistling in the dark. As I have written before, I think Teodoro’s ceiling will be around 16 percent—the share of the vote Jose de Venecia received in 1998. The solid-machinery argument Pichay offers is the same one De Venecia (and Ramon Mitra in 1992) offered. It didn’t work then; it won’t work now.

Fantasize, complete with false bravado. Maceda again: “Once we get a favorable decision [regarding the disqualification cases against Estrada], we expect an increase [in his survey ratings]. We are happy where we are right now.”

Is that a fact? A steady decline, plus a one-percentage-point loss over Christmas (the time difference between the two most recent SWS polls) is cause for happiness? It’s a long way from happy-where-we-are-right-now to vindication.

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