how statistics lie

There's an old episode of the West Wing in which a pollster is trying to get the President to sign onto a measure that would ban flag-burning. It's an easy way to gain a few votes, the pollster said. A constitutional amendment to ban flag burning is never going to happen, so what's the harm? It shows the POTUS to be a patriotic American. Is there anything wrong with that? The president's staff arranges for Bartlet to sit through various town hall meetings with people hectoring him over the issue. Finally he asks, "Is there an epidemic of flag-burning I don't know about?" and walks out.

Later, a couple of staff people are talking about the polls in which a majority of Americans support a constitutional amendment prohibiting flag-burning. A cool-headed pollster points out the flaw: that figure may be true, but the percentage of people who rate that issue as important or very important is low. Very low. A simple yes-or-no question is not going to capture the intensity of the opinion.

I've been thinking about this since the controversy over Park 51 has begun.

Apparently, around 70% of Americans think that the community center and mosque shouldn't be built so close to Ground Zero. Let's set aside whether constitutionally protected actions should be subject to the will of popular opinion. (Here's a thought: No.) What I haven't seen is anything about the intensity of that 70%. People are certainly pontificating about it in the media and on the Internet, and unfortunately, it's the panderers and bigots who seem to be loudest. And those folks keep trumpeting the 70% figure, as if every one of that 70% is as deeply offended as they are. I would be willing to bet good money that they aren't.

My guess is that if you take out the members of Shoutytown, and the people who have been convinced by them that this is a "victory mosque" or that all Muslims are evil, that much of the opposition is somewhere in the universe of "I know there's no rational reason why this should bother me, but I have to admit it does. 9/11 is such a profound psychic wound for our nation that we need to proceed with utmost caution. If another site could be found that wouldn't jeopardize the project's mission, I would favor it. But if this is the location, eh, the world will go on."

The only thing I have found that even comes close to addressing this is a poll of New Yorkers. A majority favor another site, AND a majority agree that the Cordoba folks have a right to build there. This suggests to me that people are able to separate their personal feelings about the project from whether it should be allowed to continue.

Absent some nuance, we will continue to have political figures exploiting this for cheap electoral gain and using this as a litmus test to show who's more patriotic and reverent toward the events of 9/11.

Meanwhile, some more people starved to death in flood-ravaged Pakistan today.

Photo: Off-track betting; one of the many businesses located near Ground Zero. More here.