Column: Tatad and political immaturity

Published on February 23, 2010.

Former Sen. Francisco Tatad is shocked —shocked!—that surveys in the Philippines, the same ones that show him lagging behind in the Senate race, are, in his words, “fatally flawed.” He told a media forum last week: “We are shocked that survey methodologies, techniques and practices that have failed and been completely discarded in the United States and other advanced countries are being used in local opinion surveys without any mention of their limitations.”

His attack came as a surprise to journalists and other survey-users who have made it a habit to read the Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia websites when new surveys are released. But Tatad did not mean just margins of error and confidence levels. He meant something even more fundamental: the practice of face-to-face interviews.

“These methodological and practical problems, according to [American pollster and academic Kenneth] Warren, doomed face-to-face interviews forever. By 1980, nobody in the US wanted to pay for this type of ‘fatally flawed and grossly inaccurate surveys.’”

Let’s leave it to SWS and Pulse Asia, who have the temerity to rank Tatad outside the winning circle (15th-18th place, in Pulse Asia’s December 2009 survey of senatorial candidates; 17th-18th, in the Businessworld-SWS January 2010 survey), to put in the proper perspective Tatad’s apparently belated discovery of the so-called mode effect.

Let me limit myself to the observation that, Tatad’s curious American analogy aside, both Pulse Asia and SWS have in fact tracked the results of previous Senate elections with high accuracy. I suspect that Tatad would have changed his tune about surveys if he were doing better in them; as it is, we get the benefit of his loser’s cynicism. In this respect, he reminds us of the many spokesmen of the Arroyo administration, who spoke well of surveys when they tracked the progress of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s disciplined campaign for the presidency in 2004, but dismissed the polls when these began to register public outrage over the “Hello, Garci” controversy and succeeding scandals.

This is not to say that all surveys are scientific, or that even the most reputable polling organizations do not make mistakes. (The SWS exit poll for Metro Manila in the 2004 elections remains a low point.) But a robust culture of solid, scientifically conducted surveys is a condition of political maturity.

Herewith, a preliminary list of attitudes or practices that hinder our growth in political maturity.

Overheated campaign rhetoric. It would be plain folly to believe everything that is said in the heat of campaigning. A perfect example comes to mind, courtesy yet again of Tatad. In 2004, at a campaign rally in Mariveles, Bataan, he accused the Supreme Court, then hearing the citizenship case of his standard-bearer Fernando Poe Jr., of “preparing the stage for something sinister.” His evidence? “There are reports to this effect that justices have been overheard to have said that they are ready to proceed against our candidate.” Triple hearsay, at the very least.

He then warned supporters that if Poe were disqualified “due to reasons which I believe are totally unacceptable, then we would not be in a position to impose our will on our people in the grassroots.” In other words, prepare for violence. No wonder this newspaper then described his outburst as “the latest proof, but not the last, that Tatad has disqualified himself from ever serving in a republic.”

Mistaking “rational” for “reasonable.” The political philosopher John Rawls makes the most of this useful distinction, first attempted by WM Sibley. “Reasonable persons … understand that they are to honor these principles, even at the expense of their own interests as circumstances may require, provided others likewise may be expected to honor them.” In contrast, there are persons who are merely rational. “In everyday life we imply this distinction, as when we say of certain people that, given their superior bargaining position, their proposal is perfectly rational, but unreasonable all the same.”

In other words, a rational person does things according to a particular logic of self-interest; a reasonable person is expected to sacrifice even his own interests if society requires it.

In a politically immature society, many citizens think their rationality—that is, following their own logic—is already a mark of reasonableness.

Not least, blaming the surveys. It is politically immature to blame surveys for reflecting public opinion. Think about it: If surveys influence voting behavior to a substantial degree, say through the so-called bandwagon effect, then survey results would no longer be accurate. The reason marketing executives and election strategists alike pay good money for surveys is precisely because they can rely on the surveys’ accuracy. Shocking, but true.

1 Comment

Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics

One response to “Column: Tatad and political immaturity

  1. Pingback: Column: The credibility of surveys: Tatad’s reply « Newsstand

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