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Saturday, November 22, 2008

Robert Waldmann

is old enough that I automatically associate the name Ziegler with Richard Nixon's press secretary. That identification is no longer operative. I am writing about John Ziegler who designed and interpreted a poll of Obama supporters conducted by Zogby.

Zogby reports and interprets the results here.

Substantive discussion addresses the claim that two of the questions were biased -- that the answers counted as correct are arguably not correct, but rather expressions of anti-Obama opinion, and that one, testing knowledge about Biden was very obscure. In particular Nate Silver and Carl Bialik at the Wall Street Journal. and, uhm John Zogby all criticize Ziegler and un-named Zogby employees. Also Silver, Bialik and Zogby note that it is unfair to quiz one candidates supporters without quizzing the others. I will talk about this some, but I am interested in close analysis of clumsy rhetoric.

I am interested in Mr Ziegler's use of and views on the English language.

The post has gotten long and readers might not want to waste their valuable time. I will bring my most nearly interesting point up here.

Carl Bialik on a Wall Street Journal blog writes

On the fifth question about older events, “Which candidate said their policies would likely bankrupt the coal industry and make energy rates skyrocket?”, more voters named McCain than Obama. However, Obama’s cited comments — made in January in a meeting with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board — referred to bankrupting new coal plants, not the industry. He was speaking about a cap-and-trade system for emissions, something that McCain also has supported.

“We wrote ‘likely’ because of that very caveat,” Ziegler told me. “We had to simplify it, and I stand by the simplification of the question.”

Oh my. Ziegler just said that a false claim can be made true by adding a standard weasel word, evidently just about anywhere in the claim. Bialik's complaint was about the difference between a new coal fired power plant (big) and the coal industry (bigger). He didn't mention whether Obama used the word "skyrocket" or whether that might not correspond exactly in meaning to whatever Obama said. Ziegler clearly asserts that a modification of the allegedly asserted probability of an event (down to likely from unqualified and evidently certain) is a valid response to the observation that Obama's statement was about a different event.

I've never seen a franker assertion of the belief that one can get away with making a false claim by inserting a weasel word. Now here, I think, Ziegler probably thinks he is being, basically, honest. He thinks that cap and trade will bankrupt the coal industry. He has the vague impression that Obama, more or less, admitted that he agrees. He hears a claim that it will make new coal fired plant unprofitable but won't bankrupt the industry. He tones his claim down to "likely bankrupt the coal industry." Ooops he forgot, his question is not about what is true about cap and trade and the coal industry but what Obama said about cap and trade and the coal industry. Generically weakening an innaccurate paraphrase does not make it an accurate paraphrase. In fact, IIRC, the word "likely" makes the paraphrase less accurate as Obama expressed no doubt in the interview.

I think the example is of some interest as it seems to me to be a very frank description of the editing of the question. I think I should be able to understand something from this example. That is Ziegler's statement leaves me totally mystefied. How could someone think that adding "likely" changes a coal plant into the coal industry ? How can someone not understand that a statement can be innaccurate in ways other than being too strong, so that toning it down doesn't make it true ? Why did this guy set himself up for so much ridicule ?

Ziegler reports on the results in a post with the same headline used by Zogby "Survey finds most Obama voters remembered negative coverage of McCain/Palin statements but struggled to correctly answer questions about coverage associated with Obama/Biden"

Try to imagine you don't know who Obama and McCain are and re-read that sentence There is clearly a comparison here, but the structure is not symmetric. First, of course, only Obama voters were tested. It is well known that people prove to be astoundingly ignorant in polls. Quizzing someone's supporters on (alleged see below) facts is clearly not a friendly act.

More strikingly, there appears to have been no negative coverage of Obama Biden or no non negative coverage associated with McCain. Ziegler and the zogby staffer(s) insert their claim that the coverage of McCain was "negative" (used a pejorative term in contemporary political coverage as opposed to "critical" which is neutral) and does not characterize the questions about Obama/Biden (which were all critical). Furthermore he asserts that the criticisms of Obama and of Biden are "correct" and does not assert that the negative coverage of McCain and of Palin is correct.

Would Ziegler and the Zogby staffer(s) have been equally likely to write correctly answer questions about coverage associated with Obama/Biden">"Survey finds most Obama voters answered questions about coverage associated with McCain/Palin statements but struggled remember negative coverage of Obama/Biden" ? I don't think so either.

Or how about we remove all words which depend on the survey results and leave only that which Ziegler and Zogby inc brought to the data

"Survey finds most Obama voters ... negative coverage of McCain/Palin statements but ... about coverage associated with Obama/Biden" To mee that seems to suggest that the media were biased against McCain, yet it has nothing to do with input from anyone not employed by Zogby except maybe Ziegler.

Ziegler and the Zogby staff were unable to achieve formal balance, by using the same words for negative coverage of McCain and negative coverage of Obama. I conclude that they are not very skilled at rhetoric.

OK now some textual analysis of the questions.

"Which candidate won their first election by getting all of their opponents kicked off the ballot" Allegedly correct answer -- Barack Obama. The ignorance of Obama supporters of a ballot challenge in a long past Illinois election is not surprising. Ziegler admits that his result may have been partly due to the obscurity of the events in Obama's and Biden's lives. My point, however, is that the question and proposed answer amount to an opinion not a fact. It is a fact that, on Obama's initiative, all of his opponents were kicked off the ballot in his first election. It is not a fact that this was necessary for his win. The word "by" implies causation. The question and answer assert that the ballot challenge caused the victory, that is, assert the counterfactual claim that if any of the other candidates had remained on the ballot Obama would not have won.

Also "Kicked off" is a dead metaphor which measn "removed." It doesn't imply actual physical violence by means of a foot, but it is charged language which makes Ziegler's bias more obvious than it was before (if that is possible).

"Which candidate has clothes that their political party reportedly spent $150,000 on"

Hmm which sentence contains at least 2 grammatical errors ? I know don't get stoned in glass houses, but a preposition isn't the sort of thing you should end a sentence with. Also "candidate" is singular and "their" is plural. Clearly her gender has to be supressed to get correct answers below 100% (only 86.3% got it right -- some Obama supporters really have been hiding under a rock) but "his or her" is gender neutral and singular while "their" and "his and her" are gender neutral and plural.

"Which candidate said that they could see Russia from their house ?"

Oh my, Bialik told me this, but I didn't believe it. The answer which is marked correct is "Palin." The correct answer is "none." Tina Fey and Palin look alike, but they are technically two different people (plural) not one person (singular, that would be one very very singular person indeed).

OK so don't know much about Rhetoric (my interest). Don't know much about grammer (like I could care less). Overestimate Sarah Palin's ditziness !!!!!!!!!

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