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In a world polls apart

We're waiting patiently -- well, fairly patiently -- for a poll that asks us how we feel about polls. Have we ever got an answer ready! -- and you can't express it by a flick of a No. 2 pencil in one of those multiplechoice boxes pollsters so love.

Pollsters, on the other hand, are not patient at all. When they were children, it seems, they were the precocious kids in the front row of everybody's class who used to blurt out the answer before the teacher could finish the question. Pollsters want to be the first with the news, even when it hasn't happened.

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Who's going to win the next primary? Why wait until voting day to find out? The pollsters will tell us how we're going to vote before we know ourselves. Counting the ballots becomes an anticlimactic act of ratification.

In the world of the pollster the present is always deja vu.m He doesn't even hang around to see if he's correct. He just makes one last prediction -- forecasting what his margin of error will be -- and hurries on to the next primary, or whatever.

The pollster has the personality of a prophet and the working habits of a computer. He faces the unknown, and turns it into a statistic. His fanatical urge is to measure everything, from an opinion to a wish -- to the nearest decimal.

Will the public buy a dry cereal with anise flavoring or a shaving cream with a new-mown-hay aroma? No need to market the products. The pollster will find out for you by pretesting.

For the pollster all verbs begin with the prefix "pre-." He declares the results before the game even starts. His art form is the instant preplay.

Are Americans willing to invade Iran to free the hostages? Never mind the time-consuming process of public debate. Just check your latest poll, like everybody else, from President Carter down.

The trouble is, the "opinion" poll often has the same relation to true opinion that powderred punch has to grape juice. A question is framed in a synthetic way that produces a synthetic answer -- and maybe even a synthetic answerer.

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What would become of people who did nothing but answer polls? Conditioned to all those preselected multiple choices, would they come to resemble toy robots whose cassettes allow the illusion of free responses?

Of course we're exaggerating, and of course it's not the fault of the pollsters. They're almost as much the victims of their system as we are. Still , important questions -- like war and peace! -- keep getting reduced to push-button choices of either-or until the endlessly complicated turns into the neatly simplistic.

Do you believe in divorce? Yes. No. Sometimes.

Is genetic engineering ethical? Always. Never. It depends.

All too many "opinions" are dommed to be either obvious or falsely conclusive -- people raising their hand for something.m

Of all the sorts of polls we anti-pollsters vote against, perhaps the most dubious is the psychological "profile" poll. This may be identified as the "Do-you-consider-yourself . . .?" poll.

Do you consider yourself shy?

Do you consider youself aggressive?

Do you consider yourself happy?

Check one. "Very." "Moderately." "Not at all." "Other."

Every year at Christmas the "profile" polls ask us what we think of Christmas. Every year about this time they ask us how we enjoy our vacations. (See the current issue of Psychology Today if you want to be assured that workaholics are inclined to keep on working during their vacations, when they take them.)

After a while one suspects that polls like these are being answered by people who've already read the last poll on the subject.

The daily surprise of life -- all that is charming and random and inexplicable -- polls try to arrange in columns.

We understand that pollster, polling themselves on anti-pollsters like us, would have to check the box reading "unfair," and they'd probably be right. But that's our objection to polls -- even when they're right, they're somehow wrong.

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