Shadowmetricsrnby Robert WeissbergrnThe public opinion poll has become an ubiquitous featurernof modern life. Seventy years ago, there were no professionalrnpollsters. Fifty years ago only a handful—Gallup,rnRoper—served as takers of the public pulse. Today, thanks torncomputer and telephone technology, thousands of publicrnopinion sccrs and sages arc for hire. The explosion of practitionersrnis only the most visible change. More important is thernpoll’s new authority and legitimacy. With its esoteric technicalrnterms, data banks staffed by skilled technicians, complexrnstatistical procedures, and close associations with prestigiousrnacademic and business enterprises, it is scientifically authoritatirne.rnEen if this were insufficient, polling is fully cloaked inrndemocratic legitimacy—democracy means heeding the people,rnand what better way to give an ear than through the poll?rnAll political persuasions embrace it. Predictably, such anrnaailable and powerful tool is relentlessly applied. No selfrespectingrnofficial, candidate for office, government agency,rnopposition group, or mass media purveyor can afford to bernwithout one. To say that the modern poll has become thernscientifically sanctioned, eonsensually celebrated form of sclfrernclation and self-understanding is no exaggeration. Whenrnthe vox populi speaks through the pollster, as it always seems tornbe doing, everyone listens re’erently.rnA few still hold out against this mechanical peephole into thernpublic mind. These nonbclicvers still prefer their insights thernold-fashioned way—semi-rambling conversations with bartenders,rncabbies, and barbers (not hair stylists). To them, thernwhole bean-counting endea’or is beyond salvation; it is pointlessrnecn to read the polls.rnBut such Luddites are rare. Far more common are the uneasrnskeptics, those who occasionally sneak a peck, especiallyrnwhen findings confirm intuition, but who cannot truly believe.rnDeep down, the endless parade of cold numbers makes themrnRobert Weissberg is a professor of political science at thernUniversity of Illinois in Lkbana-Champaign.rnnervous. Their resistance to conversion is vague, ambivalent,rnnot rooted in a hard-data countervision or principle. They cannotrndecide whether polls offer passing curiosities, harmless entertainmentrnakin to “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” or whetherrnthey capture some sliver of reality.rnWe address a simple question: leaving aside dishonesty andrntechnical incompetence, can the skeptic generally accept polls?rnOur answer is also simple: polls occasionally reveal a modestrnportion of reality, at best. It is not that people consciously lie,rnthough some do. Nor is it that the head counters are schemersrnexploiting science, though some are. Rather, the polling processrnby nature cannot present a full, well-rounded picture; arnmurky virtual reality is more like it. Polling may be compared torna particular hand tool—it does a few jobs well, other tasks adequately,rnbut you cannot build a house with a screwdriver.rnWhat polls can build is public opinion. At a minimum, thernterm “public opinion” predates by two centuries the modernrnpoll. “Opinion of the people” appeared in England as early asrn1741; esprit public and conscience publique emerged in latern18th-century French writings. The absence of survey technologyrndid not, of course, preclude discovering public sentiment.rnOpinion was displayed in newspapers, polemical writings,rnspeeches, crowd reactions, public demonstrations, and numerousrnother visible manifestations. Visiting the local coffeehouse,rnsalon, or Tischgesellschaften might suffice. Periodically, publicrnopinion was self-evident, as, for example, when an angry mobrndispatched the tax collector. When the public spoke, it did sornwithout pollster midwives.rnToday, matters are vastly different. Benjamin Ginsberg’s ThernCaptive Public depicts how these spontaneous revelations ofrnpopular sentiment are now crowded out by the more authoritativernscientific poll. To fathom the public’s mind on, say, taxes,rnone collects available poll data or commissions one’s own statistics.rnThese data, not irate letters to the editor, calls to radiorntalk shows, organizational activity, magazine readership, orrnwidespread tax avoidance, comprise public opinion. All else isrninferior merchandise, the stuff cherished by the preindustrialrnFEBRUARY 1996/19rnrnrn