Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Uncertainty of Polls and Ten Reasons why God can't get my Vote

Last Thursday will long linger in the memories of Barbadians. It ended with a night of intrigue that went back and forth as many times as any of the classic cricket test match that people talk about for decades. After the dust had settled the result was a narrow victory to the incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) over the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP).

Tongues are still wagging in Barbados over the result. The fact that a government that came to power five years ago was voted back in is not especially remarkable, but what was noteworthy was that it went against the predictions of the poll conducted by CADRES led by Peter Wickham.

Peter Wickham: Pollster not Prophet
What some people don't seem to realise is that a pollster is not a prophet. Even as we that promote the scientific method try to explain that the strength of science is in its ability to correct itself and not in its ability to give certainty, people are quick to dismiss Mr. Wickham and even  the whole value of statistical tools based on one example where it missed the mark. But to his credit, Wickham's reaction is exactly in keeping with what you would expect from a scientist that prides himself on his work and wants to learn from any errors that he may have made.

He was quick to admit that he got his prediction wrong and immediately went about seeking to find out what factors may have been overlooked. This he did even as some in his corner tried to diffuse criticism by saying he really wasn't that far off. It's refreshing to see Peter stand by his predictions like that. He could so easily have taken the route of trying to rationalise his way out of trouble.  It's the opposite of religion, where outcomes are retrofitted to try to align with obscure statements made somewhere by somebody in the hazy past.  The evangelist's playing field could not be more uneven when it comes to religion versus science. Science only has to be wrong once to fall from its perch, faith only has to be right once to establish itself as the bearer of absolute truth

At the same time that Wickham tries to figure out what went 'wrong', he has stoutly defended the integrity of his method.  That is to say he is defending himself against claims that he deliberately 'rigged' the data to produce some desired result. Some people have criticised Peter for being too defensive of his position but I can definitely understand why he is so keen to confront such allegations. I would do the same thing. For any scientist, criticism on method, theory or interpretation is fair game, but any suggestion that you deliberately skewed your data is essentially implying that you are a cheat. You have to deal with that as seriously as if you are a World Champion 100m sprinter and people are claiming, without anything to back it up, that you are taking steroids.

This idea that somebody has deliberately set out to make things come out wrong is an idea that has always been prevalent in the Caribbean. I noticed it even when I was a kid going to Kensington Oval to watch cricket. If Brian Lara was given out caught behind by an Australian umpire when he clearly didn't touch the ball, that umpire would be immediately labeled by all in the crowd in the stand as a 'tiefin' umpire.' I could never understand it, why was it that everytime someone made an error that ended up favouring one side, people jumped to the assumption that there was some intentional conspiracy.

Looking at it now, I see the cynicism aimed at pollsters. umpires, referees and judges as a spillover from the religious mindset. In faith, you are encouraged to believe things that are deliberately constructed to get a desired result. You believe in God because you want to get to heaven or avoid hell, because God requires it from you or because it gives your life purpose. It is rare that anyone analyses the methodology of faith itself, assessing the strengths and weakness of this way of thinking in leading you to truth. It is easy when you are raised in such a mindset to think that other decisions in life are made on the same basis. People think that  you predict that a certain party will win because you want them to win. To many people in our islands, expressing an opinion on something means you are showing a bias. They don't get that in the scientific world, the outcome is not what really matters, it is the method that is the key. If your method is sound you will be close to truth far more often that not . If your method is fundamentally flawed you'll 'hit' occasionally if you get lucky, but over time people will  come to realise that you are shooting in the dark.

This idea of thinking that everybody that has an opinion, comes to it with a clear pre existing bias, helps me to understand why believers respond to us that are atheists in the way that they do. While we continually seek to promote our method for coming to the conclusion, all they see is the outcome. For them, we don't believe in God, because that was the outcome we wanted. That's what we wanted our 'polls' to say. If we want it to be that way there must be a reason. Perhaps we are angry at God and want to get back at him, we want freedom to do as we like or we just hate the hypocrisy of church people and want to see their cherished institution brought down to earth. Of course  by thinking those things, they show us their hand. They think we make our decisions the same way that they do. We think about what we want to be true and then go out to prove it. But like Peter and CADRES, all we are doing is applying a method. If like Peter our 'polls' turn out to be wrong, we will admit our mistake and look to see where we made our mis- step.  We will admit our mistake but we will still stand by the principle that we used the best method of assessment given the data we had. We do not rig numbers to get we want. Because what we want is not what we want. What we want is truth.

Our theist friends will no doubt tell us that we are wrong about the existence of a God for the same reasons that Peter Wickham was wrong in predicting the result of the elections. Indeed, immediately as  the final results were clear, Sandra a Christian facebook friend of mine, with whom I have had several lengthy exchanges on the subject of God's existence posted the following:

' Father God you are sovereign. We declare you as king over our nation. Continue to confound the wisdom of the wise!'

I laughed. I knew exactly where she was coming from. Apart from his reputation for being a pollster, Peter has gained some level of notoriety for his stance against religion on the local 'Brass Tacks' Call- In programme. Peter has been a true champion of reason when he has been on the air. He speaks of how people require him to back up his polls and predictions with evidence and he demands the same level of accountability from his callers. He is not prepared to accept any argument on faith from them and he let's them know it. He openly ridiculed those people who were trying to suggest that Reinhard Bonnke had done miracles when the government were getting ready to usher him in to Barbados. He said that it was a disgrace that a country like Barbados with its high standard of education in this 21st century was endorsing such superstitious nonsense. I was following from a distance online in Canada, but I  was punching the air in delight while he said that. It was as if I was on "Freethinking Island" listening to my co host Joy go off on one of her famous rants.

I was overjoyed, but deep down I knew there would be more than just a little consternation from those on the evangelical side. Hitting out at God is something that you just don't do in Barbados. I was sure that the faithful would not forget. As it turned out election night was when they and their God got their own back. Sandra's post said it all. God had come out of hiding to reign supreme and show Peter who was the real boss.

But what kind of God would that be to deal with? One who refused to reveal himself to a skeptic like Peter directly; but went through the trouble of making sure the polls he published indicated one thing and then knowingly inspired voters to do something different purely to leave Wickham with egg on his face. A God that would do that would be nothing more than a petty prankster. But that's not only Sandra's God, that's  the kind of God that millions in the Caribbean and the world believe in. Prankster or not, the global electorate have kept faith with this leader and his rather unfathomable style of governance for many years. Why? I have no idea. Sovereign or not there is no way this God could ever get my support for leadership. For so many reasons, I could never give him my 'X.' Below are just ten that immediately come to mind.

Ten Reasons why God can't get my Vote

1. Poor management of his Ministers and Ministries

God has a strange way of choosing his ministers and there just seem to be way too many. I suppose with all the ministries he has to administer he needs staff, but they often just get in each other's way. Messages conflict, divisions in the party happen almost daily and everybody just tries to one-up the other. We never know what criteria he is using to choose Ministers either. At one time he did not allow females to serve, but that has changed. Once he was firm in not picking those who were openly gay, now that's changing also. We just don't know what new rules this Prime Minister will bring. Also, in spite of his omniscience, he doesn't seem to pick the right people for highest office. For example, just a couple of weeks ago his most senior Minister resigned suddenly. People say that this event shows that he isn't careful enough it putting the right people in the right positions. My opinion is that the whole thing is simply a case of far too many square pegs in round holes.

2. Where is his Constituency Office?

For years now God's party faithful have told me that I need to get off my backside and try to find God. I have always found this a strange request. God wants MY vote apparently more than anything else in the world but it is ME who has to go out of my way to find HIM. Whenever I ask his supporters to ask him to at least come into my veranda and put in an appearance, they tell me I am being unreasonable. That God doesn't work on my terms. Excuse Me??? Not on my terms?? He is the one that is looking for a term in office not me!!

Still, just to satisfy his supporters I have tried to find him, but it is a fruitless search. His 'yard fowl' followers can't even tell me where his Constituency Office is. I can't even get a hotline number or an email address to get him at. Come on! How serious can this candidate be?

3. Who really has the right Manifesto?

God must be a very good campaign manager or at least a convincing one.  He may never do house to house, but his workers in the constituency never seem to tire of going all out for that one extra vote. To their credit they usually come armed with manifestos that  give details on what God's programs and policies are. The problem is that the language of these documents is usually not the most simple and things are often open to multiple interpretations. Sometimes the people that are soliciting you are themselves unsure about what their party leader really wanted to say. Also,  all the people working the area for him don't seem to have been given the same manifesto. Sometimes there are little discrepancies I see between the documents, probably because they are different versions, other times it seems like I am looking at a  different book altogether. Perhaps there was some printing error or somebody picked up an outdated stack of literature by mistake. Whatever the case it points to poor administration. I can't give my vote to someone who can't get something so basic right.

4. Lots of services provided but no social development

One thing you have to say about God is that he knows how to provide services. He can provide services for any one of the electorate at any time. The most common one is his morning service but he can also give noon service, service at sunset and even mass service at midnight if you really want it. Any time you want a service, you know God will provide.

The problem is that in spite of all these services, the communities he serves never seem to progress much. We are not seeing the social development or transformation we would expect. Clearly the services are not achieving what they were set up to do. Somebody is failing big time and the buck stops at God. Another reason I have to withhold my 'X.'

5. When is he going to call elections?

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Freundel Stuart in Barbados received a lot of flack for delaying the calling of elections. Some people thought that this one of the big reasons why he almost lost the government. They wanted a PM that would throw down the gauntlet and positively seek his new mandate. The thing is that God has been far more tardy than Freundel in setting a day for humanity to go to the polls. I have met several people who believe they are ideal candidates to get into heaven, but God just refuses to set a date when they will finally find out whether they have made it into that house of assembly. Over the years there have been rumours that God has already set a date, but in spite of many hopeful glances upwards into the clouds there is still no sign of a Returning Officer. I am not going to vote for a God who holds up the democratic process like that.

6. Slow in adopting new policies

For an all powerful deity, God moves awfully slowly, especially when it comes to matters of policy. He seems to follow the trends in society rather than lead from the front. I find this worrying. He only realized slavery was wrong after we realised it. He only recognised that women should not be forced to marry their rapists after we pointed it out to him. He only realised that mental illness was not caused by demon possession after doctors and scientists gave him the evidence. If you want to be a leader I can support. you have to lead on policy, not change your view because of the electorate. I understand that people have power, but God has to start acting like a real leader. So far I just ain't seeing it.

7. Never turns up to speak on his platform

Invisibility has to be God's main weakness in trying to get a vote from me. Ok, maybe he thinks the door to door thing is beneath him, but surely he can turn up to speak on a platform in front of the masses, right? But election after election he is conspicuously absent. If God is the best candidate he has to show us. If he doesn't make his presence felt and get up and demonstrate to us what he can do for us, he can't expect to win. I will vote for the man or woman who presents the best case to me. If God has what it takes but doesn't show me, I am not going to vote for him. If you don't communicate your message properly to voters and they reject you at the polls, choosing the weaker candidate as a result, it's not the electorate's fault it's yours.

8. Shabby treatment of his staunchest supporters

This part is really bothersome to me. When I look at the people most enthusiastically waving God's party banner and showing the colours, I don't see prosperity. Some of God's supporters have done pretty well for themselves but the vast majority have not. In fact the constituencies where he is most popular are usually the ones that are most impoverished. God has not treated those that have been loyal to him well. Illness, poverty and natural disasters plague those that give him the vote every election day. If God treats his followers so badly how will he treat those that stand in opposition? I shudder to think. Another reason for me to keep far away from this God candidate.

9. Aligns himself with every party

This is a huge problem because it speaks to God's integrity. It's hard to trust a God who is  a  PIP (Party in Power). Wherever I go in the world, I hear that the ruling government is God's government. Whether it's Democratic, Conservative, Libertarian, Republican or Socialist it is always the party that God supports. This is not good enough. God has to set some clear principles and stick to them. He can't just swing every four or five years from one party to another. Sorry, I am not voting for a flip-flopper God.

10. Shamelessly tries to buy votes from the 'undecideds'

God should be ashamed of himself and his supporters for allowing this to happen, but I see this all the time. I hear talk that the two main parties in Barbados engaged in this, but God's party is far more guilty of this in my opinion. I know God does it, because I have had people from his party coming around trying to buy my vote numerous times. Once they hear that I am 'undecided' they swarm like bees.

Unlike many other political parties, they offer me far more than just money for going in the booth and voting for God.  Sometimes they court me by offering to take me out for a lavish dinner or a fancy show.  But they don't stop with just offering earthly, transient delights. They promise me health, happiness everything I ever dreamed of even sometimes including sexy virgins, not for just five years but all ETERNITY.

It's just ridiculous. If this kind of thing  doesn't qualify as bribing voters, I don't know what is. It's got totally out of hand over the years and it is high time that the authorities clamped down on such disgusting behaviour. It goes without saying that I can't endorse a God or any party members that support such unethical behaviour.

So, Need I say more?