Column: The uses of error

Published on December 18, 2007

A couple of days after the poll group Pulse Asia released additional results of its October 2007 “Ulat ng Bayan” survey, I rang up Ana Maria Tabunda, its executive director. She confirmed my initial guess that the three questions on “corruption-related issues” (as she described them in the cover letter to the second release) were “riders” — that is, additional questions proposed by survey subscribers. (The use of the term, if I am not mistaken, is borrowed from legislative practice.)

The use of riders is standard, of course, as even those in Malacañang who now deny the very possibility of science (a denial Randy David warned us about last Saturday), would have to agree. Riders help make opinion polling a little more cost-effective; at the same time, because the main survey is completely its responsibility, Pulse Asia can claim, as it does, that it “undertakes Ulat ng Bayan surveys on its own without any party singularly commissioning the research effort.”

But even riders are subjected to the same strict standards of survey design and analysis. Dr. Tabunda was emphatic on this point. The questions from ex-senator and regular survey subscriber Serge Osmeña could not be included in their original form, she said. It was only after Osmeña signed off on Pulse Asia’s revised version that the questions (available online, as footnotes in the tables of findings) were included in the October poll. As I hope all reporters learn in their first few months on the job, there is a science even in the phrasing of questions.

* * *

It pained me to see Cabinet Secretary Ricardo Saludo, possibly Malacañang’s straightest thinker, adopt the small-sample defense (even if only by implication). Instead of, say, asking whether the sample of 1,200 voting-age Filipinos Pulse Asia canvassed was truly random or not, he echoed Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye’s innumerate demonization of the use of random samples in the first place.

Survey findings, of course, can be mistaken; that, in part, is what the margin of error is for. But think about it. The power of surveys — a power Malacañang itself put to good use in April and May 2004 and June and July 2005 — rests on both the recognition that errors are inevitable and on the possibility that they can be accounted for.

* * *

I have been catching up on my reading of the literature on Jose Rizal. In a particular sense, the current high interest of scholars both here and abroad in Rizal’s work can be traced to the influence of the incomparable Benedict Anderson. Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” played a pivotal role in his seminal work on the roots of nationalism, “Imagined Communities.” And in “The Specter of Comparisons,” Anderson borrows his very title, and the concept of a “double-consciousness” at the heart of nationalism, from an evocative phrase Rizal uses in the “Noli.”

It was while reading “Specter,” however, that I came upon a telling error. It was, to use Anderson’s favorite modifier, most instructive.

In “The First Filipino,” a review of Rizal literature published in the London Review of Books in 1997 and occasioned by the publication of Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s translation of the “Noli,” Anderson described Crisostomo Ibarra’s visit to the Manila Botanical Garden, where he is assaulted by “el demonio de las comparaciones.” Anderson writes: “It was this specter that, after some frustrating years writing for ‘La Solidaridad,’ the organ of the small group of committed ‘natives’ fighting in the metropole for political reform, led him to write ‘Noli Me Tangere,’ the first of the two great novels for which Rizal will always be remembered.”

Can you spot the mistake? “Soli” was founded in 1889; the “Noli” was published in 1887. Rizal started writing for “Soli” on his second sojourn in Europe; he wrote the “Noli” on his first.

* * *

To be sure — as Carlos Quirino, Leon Ma. Guerrero and Austin Coates all agree — frustration was one of those demons that drove Rizal to write his first and greatest novel. (Like a Hollywood sequel, “El Filibusterismo” has bigger bang for the buck, but is somewhat of a letdown.) And even if I have not met the great scholar, I am certain (from reading Jojo Abinales’ affectionate introduction to the Philippine edition of “Imagined Communities”) that Anderson would welcome this modest attempt to correct a minor error. (Scholarship, like the science the late Lewis Thomas celebrated in his essays, is built on man’s capacity to make — and learn from — the “happy mistake.”)

And what do I learn from this mistake in chronology? It is a conflation (I imagine) of the struggles Rizal endured, to which there is (we must admit) an unmistakable pattern. Indeed, if I focus on the irresistible arc of Rizal’s personal narrative, I can imagine myself making the same error. Rizal lived a script-ready life.

* * *

Sometime in 2003 or 2004, someone who was partly responsible for the operation told me that Malacañang had some 2,000 telephone lines (he said lines, but he might have meant numbers or SIM cards) that it could use to mobilize text-message support on certain issues or in certain situations (such as live polling on TV talk shows). I have never verified this assertion for myself (to be sure, I trusted my confidant). But in the past couple of days I have been receiving text messages from unknown numbers — all from the same polluted source. How do I know? Because the errors and misspellings in the messages, claiming that the “most corrupt” survey findings are the dastardly work of two named individuals, are exactly the same. A word to the wise: Pulse Asia’s boss is Rapa Lopa, not “Rafa.”



Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

2 responses to “Column: The uses of error

  1. ramrod

    Political Philosophy

    In Rizal’s political view, a conquered country like the Philippines should not be taken advantage of but rather should be developed, civilized, educated and trained in the science of self-government.

    He bitterly assailed and criticized in publications the apparent backwardness of the Spanish ruler’s method of governing the country which resulted in:

    1. the bondage and slavery of the conquered ;

    2. the Spanish government’s requirement of forced labor and force military service upon the n natives;

    3. the abuse of power by means of exploitation;

    4. the government ruling that any complaint against the authorities was criminal; and

    5. Making the people ignorant, destitute and fanatic, thus discouraging the formation of a national sentiment.

    Rizal’s guiding political philosophy proved to be the study and application of reforms, the extension of human rights, the training for self government and the arousing of spirit of discontent over oppression, brutality, inhumanity, sensitiveness and self love.

  2. Jojo

    Hello John,

    Passed on your comments to Ben. Will follow this up when I see him in Manila. Happy New Year

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