| PRESIDENT’S COLUMN
Peter Miller, AAPOR President 2009-2010
“And steadfast as Keats' Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
It asks of us a certain height,
So when at times the mob is swayed
To carry praise or blame too far,
We may choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid.”
From Robert Frost, “Choose Something Like a Star”
I encountered “Choose Something Like a Star” in high school (in a choral setting by Randall Thompson). The lines contrasting the heated perturbations of the “mob” with the cool, eternal fixity of the star have been a part of me since. The star’s call for perspective, objectivity and steadfastness was one that I answered immediately, with the fervent allegiance that an adolescent can muster. I guess I was a nerdy kid.
I was also very naive. Trying to stand apart, to weigh all sides, to reserve judgment, to rely on facts, to control emotions – these turned out to be hard things to do as I entered college in the latter 1960s. Then, everybody seemed to be “carrying praise and blame too far.” The fixed verity in the poem was obscured, or maybe was not there at all. Those of you old enough to remember that period may recall the cacophony of voices, the pain and anger, the disillusionment, the cynicism, the extremity of differences.
But if I had grown up earlier or later in the century, it would have been no less difficult to heed Frost’s words. It is always hard to discern a pure tone through the noise of conflict, hyperbole, alarm and deceit. Every period presents its own obstacles.
Robert Frost published “Choose Something Like a Star” in 1947. It was the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings on “communist influence” in the motion picture industry. It was when President Truman signed into law a measure intended to find and expel communists from the federal government. Fear of the “Red Menace,” nourished by entrepreneurial politicians, metastasized. It was possible to see communists everywhere.
1947 was also the year in which a group of social scientists met at Williams College and founded the American Association for Public Opinion Research. The agenda for this meeting had been laid out at an earlier, unlikely gathering in the mountains of Colorado. The visionary Harry Field had somehow persuaded a small group of prominent public opinion researchers to travel hours and days to Central City in 1946 to discuss issues of common interest. Don Cahalan notes in A Meeting Place -- AAPOR’s official history -- that he doubted that the meeting could be brought off, because, apart from the remote location, a number of the invitees did not like each other. But they did come all the way to Central City, and they talked about the need for standards for public opinion research and for an organization to foster and discipline the nascent field.
There was significant contention and worry among those practitioners of public opinion research. They disagreed on the right way to sample the public. They worried about how polls could be used to mislead the public or government officials. At Central City, they resolved to do something about their concerns, and in 1947, they formed AAPOR. They hoped that, by coming together, they could forge professional norms to guide their work.
One of the norms to emerge from their efforts is transparency. Researchers might employ many ways to measure the public, and there were apt to be disagreements about which methods produced accurate results. But there could be agreement that, whatever tools researchers employed, they should make the details public. In that way, the field as a whole could gradually understand how methods affect findings. And those who falsely claimed to have done research could be brought to account. The AAPOR Code of Professional Ethics & Standards evolved.
Disclosure is the first step in a process of judging whether survey results are credible. It is not sufficient for making such a judgment. But it is surely necessary. Transparency is the foundation upon which a science of public opinion research is built.
This year, the Standards Committee is reviewing our ethics code to see that it is up to date and optimally useful. AAPOR’s review of pre-primary polls, published earlier this year, suggested that the code needs to address new developments in polling practice. In addition, technological change in data collection mandates a new look at what features of survey design can affect estimates and should be made public.
Steadfastness in our vigilance about the need for transparency is crucial in the current information environment. The explosion of sources of information about the state of the public, the speed with which assertions diffuse, the proliferation of vitriolic, unsupported claims impel us to work ever harder to uphold this central value.
We need to make disclosure a routine part of our business, not an exceptional, onerous effort undertaken in response to a request or an inquiry. We must make sure that transparency is rewarded, not punished in the marketplace. AAPOR can do more to make the work of transparency easier, the results more accessible, and the lessons clearer. The AAPOR Transparency Initiative described in this newsletter is intended to further these ends. I hope to involve all of you in this work .
In choosing to form AAPOR in 1947, those convened at Williams College chose something like a star. It now asks of us a certain height. I hope that you will join with me in striving to reach it.
Back to top