Blog Post

The Statistics of Opposition

Here's the meme of our hour:  "It's easier to disqualify than to qualify."   What that means is that, on any controversial issue, as long as there is one position to be attacked and no other position to be evaluated, the majority of people will find something to attack.  Agreement is tricky and rarely unanimous or complete in every point.  Disagreement is easy.  All you have to do is say "No!"


HASTAC is not a political organization in the sense of party advocacy, but understanding the numbers of a political process is certainly within our scope, especially when the media and the Internet are the platform for the process and when it is important for all of us to understand how crowds source and disperse, qualify and disqualify.


Thanks to HASTAC Scholar Mike Widner, I read the smartest piece yet on the fractious moment in American politics.  No matter what one's political belief, it's hard to understand how we could have gone so quickly from the "audacity of hope" to people storming citiy halls with AK47s and Fox News TV guys weeping over "death panels" designed to kill your grandmother or your unborn child.  How did this chaos of opinion happen?  Well, it's in the numbers.  Intrinsically.  This is the flipside of the "wisdom of crowds."  It seems like chaos, but it's really statistics.   Whatever one thinks about health care reform, whatever one thinks about Congress's current particular version of it, whatever one thinks of this particular President or Congress, it's impossible to comprehend how we got from January 20 to August 20, seven short months, with this much democracy run amuck without understanding the statistics of opposition and choice. 


It's a numbers game in a quite literal sense.  Now I understand it.  As long as one has an activist leader who is changing a lot and then an opposition whose tactic is to oppose everything from every angle and not to propose anything in counterbalance, cacaphony of opinion is the inevitable, even statistical result.  In fact, from a purely statistical perspective, Obama's support in general and his support for health care is actually surprisingly high (no matter what your opinion on any of this:  I am talking numbers not policy or issues) given that the White House keeps doing things and proposing major reforms---and there are no (as in none) official, countering proposals to focus the debate.  There is no "if you don't like this health care reform offered by the Dems, then go with this one offered by the GOP."   The structure of this argument is "if you don't like this, criticize it from every imaginable angle because, as David Letterman keeps saying, 'we got nothin.'"   That is, we are not putting a single thing out there for anyone to attack.  All we're doing is posing the reasons to attack this bill.   Given this strategy in a democracy, the numbers in favor of this bill (or any complex bill on any complex issue) should be very, very low.  Again, I don't want a lot of response about "it's a good bill" or a "bad bill" because that may be true but it is beside the point.  The numbers game means as long as there is no countering bill, this one will never have a majority unless there is some total miracle.


To understand it, read this very smart piece by Tom Schaller,Asymmetrical Policy Warfare and the Prophets of Deceit, (Policy Alert:  This is from the blog 538 which does hold political positions, though they have a strong statistical bias in their methodology and in their wonkish astuteness.)


As long as the opposition (in this case the GOP) to the health care reform bill offers no solution, they win the numbers game.  "It is easier to disqualify than to qualify."  That is, the moment they put out any bill (and again, I am talking statistics here, not partisanship), it can then be the focus of "disqualification," which is to say disagreement.   There are always, in any situation, far more reasons to disagree with something than to come to agree.   For leadership towards adoption of any policy, you have to stifle better judgment.   It takes crisis and leadership but far more important it requires a productive body of collaborators who want a solution for anything positive to work because we live in a world of imperfection, no solution is perfect, and a collective body will have many, many reasons for disagreeing with any solution and even from seemingly opposite positions.   This is why often the only way to succeed is counter-intuitive, to go with the weakest and most possible solution and then, after it is passed and no longer on the table, to tinker and fix and tweak later.   That is an ideal solution in a situation where otherwise any solution will be picked to death before it's done. 


I'm writing on collaboration and evaluation now so I am immersed in these literatures.   Our culture happens to be extremely bad at collaboration and we are schooled, from infancy on, to value individual achievement, decisiveness, and linear progress even though, in fact, we depend on one another a lot.   So even more than most cultures, we are also schooled from infancy on in what, in the primitive vocabulary of the toddler, is the Terrible Two's "NO!"   There's a reason for opposition to be our first utterance.  That is our infantile translation of the adult world they see around them, and their youthful attempt to make a foray into the adult world which seems to them one gigantic "NO!  (Terrible Two's, by the way, are not a universal, cross-cultural phenomenon.  American kids have it worse than most.)   We have a rhetoric of freedom and a culture of opposition.  (This is one reason why, for people who support the President's health care reform, Barney Frank's recent thrust-and-parry with a protestor carrying a sign calling Pres Obama a "Nazi" was so welcome by many.  "What planet are you from?" he asked her, and refused to debate her because, he said, it would be like debating "the dining room table."   Terrible Twos, no matter what side you are on, are remarkably satisfying.   So much more than being pecked to death by negatives ranging from real difference to quibbles to hysterical untruths and all unbridled, unopposed oppositions in between.)


And, statistically, the brute numbers of difference mean that, without the check-and-balance of another solution, having one solution usually loses.  It is the inverse of the "wisdom of crowds" that makes it statistically always wise, on shows like "Who Wants to Be a Milliionaire," to throw your lifeline to the audience not the expert.  


"It's easier to disqualify than to qualify."     Here's a good management technique for when one is running into a disaster.  When everyone is picking apart everything, the best thing you can do is create a second parallel policy and give people the possibility of choice.  Example of the moment:  Which do you prefer, a public option or the Swiss non-profit co-op option for health care?   Once there are these two options, you can choose one or the other.  Or neither.  The very presence of a second option means more people will aggregate behind one of two options rather than around "neither."  Your chance of succeeding with some kind of plan is then higher.   Without the non-profit co-op option, there are a hundred different ways to say "no."    When polls  ask people to "choose" between reform with or without a public option, 77% of the American people say they want a public option.  If you simply ask the general question, "do you want a public option?" the negative response is much higher.  Get it?


So, if the White House wanted to get support behind their policy, what they would need to do is create a GOP policy that looked exactly like what we have now since that is the plan the GOP supports.  No polemics needed.  Just write up the key points.  Plan B:  The Alternative [GOP or Existing-America-Already-Has-the-Best-Care-in-the-World] Plan:  "We propose spending one-sixth of our GNP on health care. We propose doubling health insurance premiums every nine years, at a rate three times faster than cumulative wage increases.  We propose spending over seven thousand dollars a year per peson on health care, twice as much as other developed nations, more than on housing or food.  And we propose that the insurance companies, not doctors or patients, be the ones who decide who and what to exclude from coverage due to preexisting conditions, or procedures that are too expensive, or patients not likely to beat the odds anyway.   And we will have insurance company panels determine how much care and what kinds of tests a doctor is allowed to order and  . . ."   And etc.  

Just write up a ten-stop "plan" that is exactly what we have now and, since pundits are saying we have the best health care in the world, let the existing system, written up as a plan, stand as the opposing document to an abstract or brief of the reform plan advocated in Congress and by teh White House.  Compare and contrast.   The current debate is being cast as a "We put out a Plan.  You attack it from a dozen angles at once."   We need to even the debate by having "Plan A" (Reform Plan) and Plan B (Existing Plan).   Black and white, laid out, point for point.  Put forth a proposal that represents the status quo and it is clear there is a choice.   


Believe me, it is a great "think tactic"  for your next meeting, the next time you are grinding down into depressing nothingness, with every shortcoming clear.  By writing out what exists, it can make much clearer why reform is necessary, even if not perfect.   The new health care reform doesn't have to be perfect.  It simply needs to be significantly better than what we have now.   Words to live by for anyone seeking change in a group where consensus is necessary.  Try it! 


Try it the next time you've worked hard to come up with a proposal and it is being picked apart and nothing is working, even in situations where everyone knows a change is necessary.  (This form of debate happens far more often, in politics and in academe or in board rooms too, than most of us acknowledge.) It seems counter-intuitive, but in such an impasse, the best thing you can do is come up with a counter-proposal, including one that simply summarizes the status quo in parallel terms to the reform proposal.   "Nothing" then can be organized into Proposal A versus Proposal B.   This changes the discourse from an attack on "all the reasons A is wrong" to how "A" (however flawed) is much preferable to "B" (the status quo).


The meme again?   "It's easier to disqualify than to qualify."





1 comment

Sometime after posting this blog, the new poll came out showing that 77% of Americans prefer the "choice" of a public option. (I added that poll as an illustration to the blog above for convenience of readers.)  Of course the main difference between this and other polls is precisely how the question is asked.  In this one, people prefer the choice of a public option to no choice.  In other ones, there was no choice.  Duh.  Here's the story:


In commenting on this post on Facebook, anthropologist Laura A. Lewis just joked that, when her child was a toddler, she would give him a choice, "Bath and then dinner?  Or dinner and then a bath?"   With such choices, he was happy and picked one.  


We're all really still toddlers at heart . . . but you'd think statisticians and the news media would have figured out this elementary issue before.  Or maybe they have but "people want choice" just isn't as good a headline as "catastrophe ahead! presidency in ruins! America sold out! America in revolt!" etc etc.