Bryan Schott’s Political BS: Your Own Private Idaho

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept.” – George Carlin

You would think the staff at Utah Policy was caught sucker-punching babies given the reaction to some of our public opinion polls.

Two weeks ago we found that 61% of Utahns oppose same-sex marriage. That shouldn’t be too surprising given that the state did pass a ban in 2004 with 65% of the vote.

However, same-sex marriage proponents didn’t want to accept those numbers as anything other than out and out lies. We were accused of manipulating the results, having an agenda and just being plain wrong. People wanted to tear into the minutiae of our polling, hoping to find some error that would invalidate the whole thing.

This week, our survey on Common Core found a plurality of Utahns oppose the education standards, but only 21% could accurately identify where they came from. Those results were characterized as “spin” and “propaganda” – mostly by opponents of Common Core.

These reactions underscore a disturbing fact. Utahns don’t want to accept any truth that challenges their deeply held beliefs. I favor same-sex marriage and anyone who doesn’t is wrong. I oppose Common Core, so everyone else should as well.

Public opinion polls aren’t meant to shape public opinion, they’re meant to measure public opinion at a certain point in time. Even with a margin of error of about 5%, we can reasonably say between 56 and 66% of Utahns oppose same-sex marriage and somewhere between 16 and 26% of Utahns understand where Common Core comes from. That’s not to say these opinions are never going to change, but right now they are what they are.

Our poll numbers may hurt your feelings or make you mad, but they are not part of some grand conspiracy. That’s true for any poll. Some surveys are less reliable than others, but if you understand the science of polling, then you know how accurate these numbers can be.

People take these results personally, which is exactly the wrong thing to take away from the numbers. Just because your bubble of support is in favor of same-sex marriage does not mean the rest of the state feels the same way. The people you choose to surround yourself with think like you, so it’s hard to see where you might be in the minority.

The problem is people want to live in their own echo chambers where everyone agrees with them and any contrary voice is treated with suspicion and disdain.

I suppose that’s nothing more than arrogance. It’s hard to admit when we are wrong, or that people don’t agree with us. It’s especially difficult when we’re presented with mathematical evidence of that fact – it’s hard to argue against it.

We have become a self-segregating society based on our beliefs. The more we do that, the more we adopt an us against them attitude. People complain about gridlock and hyperpartisanship – but what do you expect from policymakers when this is how their constituents create and curate their social media friends and followers. It’s so easy to “unfriend” someone who presents an opinion you don’t like with just one click – which makes the bubble that much stronger.

I ask you, dear reader, when was the last time you encountered an opinion that was dramatically different than yours and your response was to explore or understand where that person was coming from? Or, more likely, did you dismiss it out of hand and treat it with suspicion and disdain, probably labeling that person as a “kook” or something worse?

The echo chamber is a comfortable place to be. You don’t have to defend yourself. You don’t have to hear a contrary opinion. The echo chamber is a bubble of acceptance and warmth – kinda like kindergarten, except there are no naps and cookies every afternoon.

But, when you refuse to leave the sanctuary of the bubble, nobody talks to each other, or they end up yelling. Nothing productive happens, because it’s easier to retreat to the comfort of the echo chamber where you’re always right and everybody else is wrong.

That’s not a recipe for good public policy. That’s a recipe for gridlock and making decisions without considering all sides.

So, our polling isn’t designed to push people one way or the other. It’s merely meant as a starting point to show where Utahns are at this moment on a particular issue. It’s nothing more than a data point that people can use or not.

But they’re not only not using the data, they’re going out of their way to point out how it is flawed or biased or wrong. That suggests a deep insecurity, which is why so many people prefer to stay in the echo chamber.

But, this reaction tells me one more thing – that is on the right track with our polls. People are paying attention. Whether they choose to listen is up to them.