Like the children of Lake Wobegon

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I received a few days ago a questionnaire from the League of Women Voters, which contained the following question:

In your view, what is the single biggest problem with elected officials in Washington, D.C., today?

__ They are out of touch with regular Americans.

__ They are under the influence of special interests.

__ They only care about their political careers.

__ They are too partisan and unwilling to compromise.

__  All of the above.

"None of the above," would have made sense. But it doesn't seem likely that it was intended.  This doesn't seem to be one of those gotcha cases in which it's clear what the writer meant but they somehow misspoke.  If "All of the above," was meant to correspond to the respondent's considering all four of the proposed answers to represent serious problems, why would the questioner have proposed in effect that either just one or all four of the possible responses be selected?  A tie for first doesn't seem likely either.

In the same mail there arrived a letter from an organization called The Trident Society offering

Free Pre-Paid Cremation!

Both free and pre-paid, now that sounded like a deal!

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26 Comments »

  1. Flink said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 7:58 pm

    You don't think "the single biggest problem" is they suffer from an awful combination of all four of those bad factors?

  2. Bedwetter said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

    Isn't it naive to think that the writer is actually trying to conduct any kind of genuine survey here? Surely this is a disingenuous attempt to whip the reader into a fervor of 'got-to-do-something-about-them-pesky-politicos' by listing a few things that 'women voters' are likely to get mad about. It's effective demagoguery, not dubious logic.

    Meanwhile the survey format creates an illusion in the mind of the reader that they're being listened to and empowered.

  3. rkillings said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 8:31 pm

    Would it make more sense to you if the last question were reworded, "The very fact that all of the above are true"?

    If the four problems in combination make the situation intractable, what is the point in ranking them? The biggest problem is that you've got all four.

  4. Jonathan Badger said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 9:43 pm

    While I admit that some criticisms of politicians are self-contradictory, really I don't see the problem with "all of the above" in this case, although I assume that the point of this posting was to mock the criticisms as being so.

  5. Janice Byer said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 9:55 pm

    I agree with Bedwitter's sense that the League's answers are rhetorical and meant not to survey but to persuade, little doubt, of the League's need for donations. Push-polls make notorious use of the same.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Push_poll

  6. Acilius said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 10:34 pm

    It's surprising to see the name "League of Women Voters" and "demagoguery" in the same sentence. As US-based readers should know, the League is a good-government organization that has sent the last 90 years cultivating a reputation for relentlessly bland nonpartisanship. And their target audience is not simply women who vote, but Americans who take politics quite seriously, much too seriously to be unaware of a device so crude as push-polling. So if the League were to go in for demagoguery, I should think it would have to be rather more subtle than this.

    [(myl) There's some other evidence on the web that they (or someone pretending to them) has been using this particular polling language for a while.]

  7. the other Mark P said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 11:38 pm

    but Americans who take politics quite seriously, much too seriously to be unaware of a device so crude as push-polling.

    Just because the target audience know what push-polling is, doesn't mean it won't work.

    Presumably people who see advertisements for expensive cars are aware they are advertisements. Yet the sellers of such cars apparently think they work.

    Emotions ride rough shod over logic. I can get all misty eyed at a well sung national anthem even while knowing that it's just a song with very dodgy lyrics.

  8. Paul Kay said,

    September 4, 2011 @ 11:44 pm

    This was supposed to be a light-hearted jibe about careless language, used by people who had time and reason to edit their writing. That's why I titled it with an allusion to the children of Lake Wobegon, all of whom are known to be above average, and filed it under "Fine Writing." Apparently the post failed in that regard. The political content was beside the point.

  9. Glenn Bingham said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 12:03 am

    Well, it turns out that the Trident Society uses the same logic as the League of Women Voters. That must be the connection. Their webpage is identical to the webpage for The Neptune Society, except in each case, "Neptune" is substituted for "Trident," even in the logo.

    Trident Society: America's most trusted cremation services. (TM)

    Neptune Society: America's most trusted cremation services. (TM)

    So the one outfit that can be trusted more than any other? Both of these.

    It appears that there is no additional charge for "members" pre-paying for "pre-planning" the cremation, locking in the price. Although a definitive answer is well hidden, my original suspicion seems right: there is no charge for paying early as long as your membership is paid up to date. However, when it comes to logic, they don't seem to know their ash from a superlative.

  10. Janice Byer said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 1:18 am

    Not to defend the Trident Society, of which I know nothing, only to suggest its self-contradictory adjectives could be its way of assuring Paul he doesn't need to have a dead body to take advantage of its offer.

  11. Janice Byer said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 2:01 am

    Glenn, hee. My guess is they'd rather not know their ash from a hole in the ground, the better to burn people.

  12. Naveed Chowdhury said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 2:31 am

    Perhaps the letter simply meant that the pre-paid cremation was freely available.

  13. Aaron Binns said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 3:39 am

    I guess "Free Pre-Paid" is different than "Free After Rebate".

  14. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 5:52 am

    If the political questionnaire offers only four singular options plus the combo "all of the above", it is agenda-setting in that there may be other plausible options questionees might prefer to select. "They're all crooks and lizards" may be excessive, but "they're too religious" or "there are too many white middle-aged rich males" are conceviable. So without listing a plethora of choices, a "write in some other option" option would not be a bad idea (though it would require manpower to process the result, not just a tick-scanning program).

    As the OP suggests, even within the questionnaire it's odd that EITHER one of the four options is selectable OR all four of the options combined; BUT NOT two or even three of the options combined.

  15. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 5:53 am

    i after v when after e, isn't it?

  16. Colin John said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    I heard an advertisement on local radio that said (and I quote) "Barnsley Kitchens, free fitting, or discount for self-fit".

  17. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 7:46 am

    (myl, your link is broken.) This is a fund-raising letter, and it's common for fund-raising letters to include slapdash unscientific polls so that donors can feel that they're being heard. The limited choices on this one strike me as more the result of a sort of nerd-speak than of push-polling; the writers likely didn't take a lot of time on the poll, and included the possible answers that struck *them* as plausible. If you're the sort of person who gives money to the LWV, you probably agree with this set of choices. Other possible answers (such as "one of the parties has been taken over by loons") weren't the sort of things that would occur to someone who works for or gives money to the LWV (and would have been seen as insufficiently nonpartisan if they had).

  18. Dan Hemmens said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 8:46 am

    Like the second commenter, I'd argue that there's a certain legitimacy in treating four problems as a single large problem.

    Looking at it backwards, you could phrase the whole thing as: "the single biggest problem with American politics is that politicians, only being interested in furthering their political careers, allow themselves to be unduly influenced by special interest groups, to succumb to partisan politics and to lose touch with ordinary Americans."

    It's a detailed description of a complicated problem, but it's still reasonable to refer to it as a single problem. By a similar token you could break down most of the individual points on that list into yet smaller points ("special interests" for example, presumably covers a great many things as does being "out of touch with regular Americans").

    Plus, as others have pointed out, this doesn't read like a genuine poll to me, so much as a set of rhetorical questions.

  19. SeanH said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 2:16 pm

    Colin John, what's wrong with that offer? You get a discount on your kitchen if you fit it yourself. I don't see the contradiction.

  20. The Ridger said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 4:45 pm

    Given that it's a fund-raiser, not a "real" poll, the point is that "all of the above" is a single problem which needs to be addressed. The four points are symptoms of a larger problem.

    It is amusing to see four things labeled "single", though.

  21. Just another Peter said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

    @SeanH: Let's suppose they're charging $500 for an item fitted and $400 for self-fit. This means they're charging $100 for fitting. However the ad states "free fitting" and is therefore lying.

  22. Glenn Bingham said,

    September 5, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

    @Dan Hemmens

    "Looking at it backwards, you could phrase the whole thing as:…"

    I agree because of one reason: 1) The several parts have a causal connection, 2) the intent is for one to buy the whole package, anyway 3) you have analyzed this correctly, and 4) your analysis meshes with my initial reaction.

  23. Jason said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 2:43 am

    As I'm sure is obvious, it's a question not to elicit information, but to frame the issue. After all, what concerned voter likely to send money could fail to agree with any of the points. You're just supposed to tick YES SIR, ALL OF THE ABOVE! send in your money, and feel like someone actually is actually tallying your opinion.

    As far as pinning this on the League of Women voters, these days you can even outsource your own fund-raising development to a specialist PR agency who has lots of experience doing this sort of thing, who will churn out a letter containing a push-question like that to order for any organisation of any political stripe. That would explain similar language in numerous different fundraising letters from numerous different organisations.

  24. Matt said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 2:54 am

    I got the free pre-paid cremation letter, too, and just had to post it to facebook. Link:

    https://fbcdn-sphotos-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/217048_657683949064_13302265_35722035_7232249_n.jpg

  25. Michael said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 6:18 am

    Multiple-choice question writing is a learnable skill, but, alas, many fail to acquire it. This is but a minor example of widespread misuse in that area…

  26. Army1987 said,

    September 6, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    Also, I don't like the phrase “regular Americans” that much; I would prefer “other Americans”.

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