Letters - Spring 2013

Responses to Our Winter 2013 Issue

By Our Readers | March 1, 2013


Universal Questions

The opening paragraphs of Owen Gingerich’s “Our Imperiled World” (Winter 2013), about what followed the Big Bang, give the reader an idea of the enormousness of our galaxy and the universe. As a layman who appreciates but does not fully understand the Big Bang, I have always pondered the nature of the mass before it exploded. Was it just a sphere of Higgs bosons? How big was it? Why did it explode when and where it did? All are questions more philosophic than scientific, but they do cause me to wonder if there really could be a “first cause” or a “prime mover.”


Castle Pines North, Colorado

Poll Dance

I suggest reconsideration of your “PBK Presidents Poll,” which appears neither to be a poll nor to have been conducted uniformly among college presidents.

We’re advised only that this project collected responses from 70 individuals in an attempt to “survey leaders of colleges and universities on issues facing higher education.” There’s no description of sampling methodology, sample composition, sample weighting, questionnaire design, data validation or any computation of sampling error or statistical reliability.

What constitutes a poll is worthy of discussion. In the context of news reporting, which appears to be your aim, a poll is a study of attitudes or behavior among a randomly selected group of individuals whose characteristics are reliably representative of the broader population from which the sample was drawn. A probability-based sample, as required by this definition, is essential for the application of inferential statistics, the principle being that inferences about a full set can be made by examination of a randomly selected subset.

Many other niceties are involved—best practices in questionnaire design and accuracy in data analysis, for instance—and particulars can be debated. But the day starts with sampling. Without it we have a compilation of anecdote—not reliably quantifiable in a representative sense, and thus not a poll, presidents’ or otherwise. The stylebook of The New York Times, for one, says that the words “poll” and “survey” are to be “limited to scientific soundings of public opinion.”

What we have, rather than a poll, may be an attempted census. To be successful, this would have to include as close as possible the presidents of all the 280 academic institutions with PBK chapters. Without awareness of, and if needed correction for, differential nonresponse, a 25 percent completion rate in a census, sorry to say, doesn’t cut it.

Who actually participated is as murky as the methodology. The Scholar’s website lists verbatim responses from 62 participants in this project; many of these responses, however, are not actually attributed to college or university presidents, making the notion of a “Presidents Poll” seem more like an aspiration than a confirmed reality. Busy executives often assign administrative tasks—survey taking can be one—to assistants. Official policy may thus be expressed. Personal attitudes, as a presidents poll might be expected to offer, maybe not.

More troubling than the collection of anecdote, whatever its source, are the number and percentage sign printed on page 120 of the dead-tree issue, moving this effort from the realm of qualitative research into the land of the quantitative. Eighty percent of respondents, we learn, feel that tuition growth is not interfering with their ability to attract students (a result that happens to run contrary to the “sticker shock” argument the piece goes on to make).

As a mere summary statistic—something said by 56 out of 70 people, some of whom might in fact be college presidents—that 80 percent is what it is, which ain’t much. The trouble is that the presentation of this number as the product of a “Presidents Poll” implies that it’s something more—in short, generalizable. We have no evidence that this is the case.

All this is hardly a new phenomenon; the misinterpretation of convenience sampling as valid and reliable survey research is as rife in the academy as it is in the news media and the wild and woolly world of market research. It is disheartening, nonetheless, to see the Scholar join this particular party.


President, Langer Research Associates

New York City


The editors respond: We thank Mr. Langer for sharing his expertise in this matter. Given that we were requesting responses from every member of the group polled, we saw no need to follow sampling methodology. Still, we did end up with only a sample of those asked. Because we are not The New York Times, we do not feel bound by its definition of a poll, but use the word in an informal and unscientific way. Our thinking continues to be that if dozens of presidents of American institutions of higher learning choose to weigh in on a subject of importance to them, then our readers will be interested in the results.

Admired Agnostic

In “A New Birth of Reason,” Susan Jacoby could have mentioned Joseph Lewis’s Atheism and Other Addresses. Lewis, a prolific writer and speaker through the 1950s, admired Robert Ingersoll to the point of saying Ingersoll’s forthrightness cost him the presidency of the United States.

Robert Hardin

from our website

Website Matters

Michael Dirda recently signed off as the author of “Browsings,” a Friday column on our website, a departure that elicited a number of responses from his regular readers.

“Thank you, Mr. Dirda. You have brought me and many others great pleasure with your writings,” wrote one follower. From another: “I’ve loved this column right from the start, and I’m sorry to see it go.” Still another wrote, “I first looked into [Wodehouse’s] Bertie Wooster and Gussie Fink-Nottle on your recommendation. It is now 10 books later, and I’m not looking back!”

To read all of his columns, go to theamericanscholar.org/the-complete-browsings. Our new Friday columnist is Brian Doyle. To read his first columns, go to theamericanscholar.org/daily-scholar/epiphanies.

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