Thursday, October 11, 2007


[50 years ago last summer, your editor covered his first story in Washington. Throughout the year, the Review will exhume some of his writings]

Sam Smith

MEDIA BIAS is not limited to bad politics; it includes bad math, typically manifested in an inability to count above the number two. According to the mass media, our world is one giant 'Crossfire' show divided into pro and anti, liberal and conservative, war and appeasement, free market and socialism. When such bifurcation fails because of the number of participants - as in sports, Democratic primaries, or reality shows - the media solves the problem by ultimately reducing the number to one, with everyone else a loser.

This is a form of semiotic suppression as bad in its own way as political propaganda for it steals opportunities, options and subtleties from us, turning us into either cheering sycophants or worthless outsiders. It also is the playing field on which we learn mindless acceptance of the minimal choices that the media offers us in the political and economic realms.

We are, for example, supposed at this moment to be obsessed with football, especially if one is a virile male. In fact, however, only about a half of American males are interested in football. A 2002 poll found that only 28% of Americans listed football as their favorite sport, with 16% preferring basketball and 12% baseball. Add them all together and you are still left with nearly half of America having something better to do. But you would never guess it from the media.

The same is true with popular music. Michael Jackson, the latest media fetish, is a not atypical example. If you only followed the "news" you would have to be wondering what was wrong with you if you did not find the fate of Jackson of concern or, worse, never liked him or his music in the first place.

Jackson sold 47 million copies of "Thriller," which sounds like a lot until one realizes that Dunkin' Donuts sells more cups of coffee than that in one month. In fact, more people have a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee than watch Bill O'Reilly on the same day. But note where Dunkin' Donuts stands in the media cultural hierarchy compared to Jackson and O'Reilly.

It's actually far worse than that. An ABC News poll last year found that 38% of Americans considered Elvis Presley the greatest rock star ever. Jimi Hendrix came in second at four percent and Michael Jackson tied Lennon, Jagger, Springsteen, McCartney, and Clapton at 2%. In all, pollees list 128 different names. Even among 18-34 year olds, Presley beat Hendrix 2 to 1, albeit getting only 19% of the votes.

The ABC News poll is unusual in that it gave actual percentages. Normally, such surveys only list rank, leaving the reader who prefers number six on the list feeling out of it and leaving all readers badly misinformed.

One way to create more honesty in such surveys would be not only to use actual percentages but also instant runoff voting in which second and third place votes would be factored in. These celebrity surveys instead use the same misguided principle that distorts our politics, confusing whoever is first past the post with the consensus choice.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that we do not know how the over 200 million Americans who did not buy a copy of 'Thriller' felt about Jackson. Some were married to a purchaser, some have downloaded it, some picked it up second hand or from a sibling. But is it not possible that among this vast pool we might not actually find a many people who disliked Jackson's music as liked it?

Yes it is. And although I have not been able to find an American study that deals with this issue, a fascinating examination of Japanese adolescent tastes in western music suggests what we might discover.

Here are the percentages of Japanese adolescents who liked very much a genre of music followed by the percentages of those that didn't like it at all:

Rock: 45, 28
Rap: 26, 43
Top Forty: 25, 43
Classical: 23, 48
Jazz: 23, 45
Techno: 22, 47
Soul: 17, 53
Country: 15, 53
Heavy Metal: 12, 48
Punk: 11, 66
Easy Listening: 10, 60

Note that rock is the only category in which the percentage of those not liking it at all does not near 50%. Note also that one of the most disliked genres is something the media has labeled "easy listening."
One of the reasons the media doesn't tell you things like this is that it would be too embarrassing. Far better to using rankings that obscure the fact, for example, that you could fit the entire American audience of CNN into a place the size of Washington DC.

So if you can't stand Jackson or his music, don't feel bad. You are just part of the silenced majority. Go down to Dunkin' Donuts have a cup of coffee like a real American.


At October 11, 2007 4:11 PM, Blogger BROKEN LADDER said...

Better and simpler methods than IRV exist, and in fact IRV is one of the worst voting methods. And it is lethal to third parties, because it makes voting for a non-major-party candidate is statistically more likely to hurt you than help you. A hugely better method is Range Voting, just like rating your songs in iTunes. The simplest form of Range Voting is Approval Voting, which is just like our present system, except that you can vote for as many candidates as you like. Here's why.

Consider this hypothetical election using IRV.

#voters - their vote
10 G > C > P > M
3 C > G > P > M
5 C > P > M > G
6 M > P > C > G
4 P > M > C > G

C is the clear Condorcet (condor-SAY) winner, meaning he is preferred by a landslide majority over all his individual rivals. C is preferred over G, P, and M all by an 18-10 margin.

But... M wins, even though he also has fewer first-place votes (6 voters) than C with 8.


1. P is preferred to M by 22 of the 28 voters, yet he's the first candidate eliminated.
2. G also has more first-place votes (10) than M's 6.
3. So M either loses pairwise to, or has fewer first-place votes than (or both) every rival, but still IRV elects M.

The example above was intended to be "realistic," perhaps somewhat resembling the situation in the (now evolving) 2008 US presidential race with G="Green", M=McCain, C=Edwards, and P=Paul. But if you are willing to drop realism and construct artificial election scenarios, then this demonstrates how to construct arbitrarily-severe election examples of this kind:

IRV sounds initially appealing, because people picture a weak third party candidate who loses in the first round. The myth is that this takes away the fear of voting for your sincere favorite candidate, and gives third parties a fair chance to grow; but if that candidate or his party ever grows to be a contender, he is statistically more likely to hurt the party closest to his own than to win. It doesn't matter how unlikely you imagine the above scenario to be - it's still _more_ likely than the odds "Green" will win. And so third party voters will learn to strategically vote for their favorite major-party candidate, because it will more often be a good strategy than a bad one. You don't have to buy my math; you can look at decades of IRV usage in Australia's house, and Ireland's presidency. Both use IRV, and have been two-party dominated. So much for the myths that IRV allows you to "vote your hopes, not your fears", and eliminates spoilers. Now you can see why the Libertarian Reform Caucus calls IRV a "bullet in the foot" for third parties, and why Australian political analysts at say that IRV "promotes a two-party system to the detriment of minor parties and independents." Ironically, most of the many countries in the world who use a genuine _delayed_ runoff have broken free of duopoly. Yet third parties just worked to help replace that system with IRV in Oakland, CA. This can be chalked up to a result of massive public ignorance, largely perpetuated by groups such as FairVote and the League of Women Voters (

Electoral reform advocates (especially third parties!) should be demanding Range Voting - score all the candidates and elect the one with the highest average. Its simplified form, Approval Voting, is probably the most feasible to implement. It simply uses ordinary ballots, but allows us to vote for as many candidates as we like. Consider the benefits:

* More resistant to strategy: As we see above, IRV strategically "forces" voters not to top-rank their sincere favorite; the general strategy with IRV is to top-rank your favorite of the front-runners (typically the major party candidates). But with Range Voting and Approval Voting, this _never_ happens. The worst a voter may do is exaggerate his sincere scores to the max and min scores allowed. But with Range Voting, a vote for your favorite candidate can never hurt you, or the candidate, whereas with IRV it can hurt both. --

* The previous fact helps to explain why IRV results in two-party duopoly, just like plurality voting. --

* Spoiler free: Whereas IRV merely _reduces_ spoilers. --

* Decreases spoiled ballots: Since voting for more than one candidate is permissible, the number of invalid ballots experimentally goes down with Range and Approval Voting. But IRV typically results in a seven fold increase in spoiled ballots when we started using IRV. --

* Simpler to use: In 2006, the Center for Range Voting conducted an exit poll experiment in Beaumont, TX. There were 5 gubernatorial candidates, and voters were allowed to rate them 0-10 (or "abstain"). They all seemed to find the process as simple and intuitive. There were no complaints of complexity, or any questions for clarification. And the fact that spoilage rates go down with Range Voting, but up with IRV, shows that there is some objective sense in which RV is simpler. Voters literally make fewer mistakes.

* Simpler to implement/tabulate: A simple one-round summation tells us the results, whereas IRV's potential for multiple rounds can cause long delays before the final results are determined. A positive side-effect of Range Voting's simplicity is that it makes the necessary transition to manual counting, and away from voting machines, more feasible. And Range Voting can be conducted on all standard voting machines in the interim. Whereas IRV's complexity leads most communities implementing it to purchase expensive and fraud-conducive (electronic!) voting machines, the fraudster's best friend. --

* Greater voter satisfaction: Using extensive computer modeling of elections, a Princeton math Ph.D. named Warren D. Smith has shown that these methods lead to better average satisfaction with election results, surpassing the alternatives by a good margin. But IRV turns out to be the second _worst_ of the commonly proposed alternatives. This mean that all voters will benefit from the adoption of either of these superior voting methods, regardless of political stripe. --

* Reduces the probability of ties: While they are not extremely common, they do happen. IRV statistically increases them, but Range Voting decreases them. --

* In case you're going to say, "But IRV has more _momentum_ than Range Voting", you should consider this. --

* In case you wonder why groups like FairVote and the League of Women Voters support IRV, maybe you should consider all the misleading and even patently false claims they've made about it. --

Get the facts at and

And if you're in the market for a better system of proportional representation ( than the antiquated STV system, check out Reweighted Range Voting and Asset Voting.

Clay Shentrup
San Francisco, CA


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