Archive for Bill Maher

The Problem with Polling

Posted in current events, opinion with tags , , , on October 1, 2010 by Kyle Fleming

In watching Real Time with Bill Maher last week, I’m realizing that polling of public opinion is inherently flawed.

In a discussion of the first enforcement of Obama’s health care reform this week–not allowing insurance companies to drop coverage for children with pre-existing conditions–one of the members of the panel, Andrew Breitbart, editor of The Drudge Report, threw out a poll number in making one of his points: “Obamacare was shoved down [everyone’s] throats… 70% of Americans were against Obamacare.”

This follows a string of other poll numbers that makes me wondering to whom they are asking these questions. I’ve yet to get a phone call or an email asking my opinion on anything. And, though I realize it is a logical fallacy to say what I’m about to, the majority of people I know were in favor of “Obamacare.” When a poll comes out that says that 20% of Americans still believe that Obama is a Muslim, despite all of the evidence otherwise, I wonder how the numbers would have turned out if different people, maybe people with some common sense who take a few moments out of the day to think for themselves.

But the biggest problem I see with the poll numbers is that so many people use the numbers as undeniable truth. When Breitbart threw the statistic that 70% of Americans were against health care reform, it was as if he had personally gone out and asked all 300 million or so people in the United States, and had done the necessary calculations do determine that, yes, it was exactly 70% of Americans that were against “Obamacare.”

Never mind that this sort of polling only does a random sampling of Americans. And never mind that public opinion of something can change as more information is gathered and processed. And never mind that, even within the random sampling, there is always a margin of error. The “70%” that Breitbart is talking about could really be 72%, which would be in his favor, or possibly 68%, which would be in the favor of everyone that can’t afford health coverage that now can under this reform.

70% is 70%, always and forever, the Gospel according to Pew.

It’s truly upsetting to me that people can spew out poll numbers without really knowing the context. Anyone who has ever taken a class that covered the basics of how to avoid bias know that there are several ways to state percentages: the majority or the minority. Each perspective puts people in a different mindset: “70% of Americans are against Obamacare” makes it seem like a bad thing, whereas “30% of Americans support health care reform” makes it seem like something positive that needs more support.

Even the percentage is completely wrong. In every study that I’ve ever seen or read about, there is never a clear cut “do you or don’t you” approach to responding to polls. There is always a spectrum, a scale of one to five, or one to ten, of how much you agree or disagree with a statement. Which means, how does that 70% break down? Are 50% strongly against, and the other 20% simply against? Could 10% be strongly against, 15% against, and 25% slightly against? Does the 70% include anyone who didn’t have an opinion either way?

Bottom line is, all polls have context. If you don’t know the context of the poll numbers, or even if you don’t consider the source, you are unwittingly spreading false information.

How to Have a Religious Discussion

Posted in opinion, religion with tags , , , on August 25, 2010 by Kyle Fleming

Recently, I got a chance to re-watch one of my favorite movies on religion: Religulous starring Bill Maher. It’s one of my favorites because it takes a look at all religions, and many of the idiosyncrasies involved with them. It’s brilliant, in that it cuts right to the core: there is no, “Tell me about the tenants of your religion,” or, “What should people of Faith X know about Faith Y?” It dives right in, with snarky observations and sharp wit that can only come from a comic great like Maher.

My only problem with the film as a whole is that Maher is sometimes unnecessarily cruel. He goes into interviews, claiming that he wants to learn more about a religion or a culture, and yet every time, the interview descends into Bill “trapping” the interviewee into a question that they cannot answer, and then not allowing them to answer. This means that the interview is over, not because they were out of questions, or the conversation ran its course, but because the interviewee realizes that they aren’t getting a say, and would rather say nothing than look like a fool.

“You guys are smart people,” Bill continually says, yet he doesn’t let them prove it.

The interviews in this movie are a good start, but it still doesn’t address the big problem with religion: no one is listening to each other. Bill shows that while intentions are good at the start, it is human nature to be biased, especially toward something that you identify with. We start with an open mind, but before long, the things we disagree on are blown out of proportion, and we end up in a shouting match.

I believe that we can have an intelligent, rational discussion about religion, one where we can all be on the same page. There just have to be a few ground rules.

The first rule sounds obvious, but it needs to be said: Listen. The biggest problem with these sorts of discussions is that people ask a question, and they wait for an answer they want to hear, rather than the answer that is given to them. This sort of half-listening means that, while some valuable answers are being given, they don’t fit the narrative that already exists in the mind.

The next rule is one that might be a little controversial: Get right to the point. Religion is a tough topic to discuss, especially with people of other faiths. In a world of political correctness and constant preaching of tolerance, it’s tough to discuss something like religion without seeming insensitive. Sometimes tough questions need to be asked, and while there still needs to be some cordiality, any fear or intimidation must fall by the wayside.

Bill Maher was right in cutting right to the chase and asking tough questions in his interviews. Where he went wrong leads to the final rule: Don’t have an agenda. Religulous was a documentary that was meant to show that religious people are crazy people, smart people who were sucked up in the delusion of religion.

This agenda he was trying to push meant that questions needed to be especially tough for the lay-person. This also meant that anytime someone was on a right path, he needed to twist words or constantly interrupt in order to make the interviewees look stupid or uninformed. Having an agenda is the worst thing to do in any conversation.

It’s three simple rules. But they are rules that could mean the difference between a religious discussion and a religious shouting-match.