Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Poll Faulting

Here are the startling results of a recent computer poll ranking male opinion of the most attractive women seen in the American mass media:

1. Comedienne Rita Rudner
2. Iconoclastic philosopher Camille Paglia
3. ESPN anchor Linda Cohn
4. Former CNN Headline News anchor Lynne Russell
5. Actress and comedienne Sandra Bernhard

"Whose total female package most turns you on?" was the question posed to an exclusively heterosexual male population via my computer. I selected myself as the first respondent queried, and to avoid contaminating the results with such alleged beauties as Anna Kournikova, Jennifer Lopez and Tyra Banks, no other guys were asked.

Those still reading this—and few would blame anyone who isn't—are surely wondering how I get off (so to speak) wasting my readers' time with a list of those who happen to appeal to my decidedly idiosyncratic taste in women.

My roster is no joke; I'd gravitate across a room to any member of that quirky quintet. And its inclusion of a couple whom few men probably consider even good-looking, much less beautiful, merely proves that old saw about different strokes for different folks.

Yet my absolutely personal list is no less legitimate than many of the pointless polls and ridiculous rankings which clutter our popular culture nowadays, masquerading as reliable indicators of public or critical opinion. Professional pollsters produce accurate, fascinating and often enlightening readings of the American mood employing methodologies termed "scientific" because they scrupulously adhere to well-established statistical principles when soliciting the views of a thousand or more randomly-selected individuals. But such polling now is the almost sole domain of the national media, major political campaigns and governments, about the only entities with enough bucks to commission such expensive surveys.

Local news organizations, cable shows and websites should leave polling to the big boys who can afford it. But instead, the lower tiers of the news and entertainment media cynically exploit the vanity of their audiences by inviting participation in decidedly unscientific polls. Sampling only those opinionated enough to take the trouble to call in or log on renders the results inherently inaccurate and thus meaningless. This trend actually predates by a few years the mid-90s explosion of Internet. When inexpensive phone-in technology became widely available in the late 80s, producers could then beseech everyone to chime in on "issues" which were sometimes downright silly, and typically charged automatically each voter a half-buck or more for the privilege of anonymous involvement.

With the ubiquity of the Web, this mindless practice has now run amok, with broadcasts, publications and websites staging an endless parade of online, "instant" (albeit free) polls. And they're frequently on questions upon which no one in the audience has any information to base an opinion ("Will the Mideast peace process work?" or "Will J.Lo stay with Ben?").

A related cultural annoyance is "ranking". Compilers of these usually dumb lists may not pretend they're representing public opinion—indeed, many insist they're merely aiming to spur debate—but they do imply that their selections are carefully made.

And when VH1 awhile back devoted ten hours to something called The 200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons, well, you figured you were in store for some real all-timers. So why did Britney Spears (20), Puff Daddy (35) and the Osbornes (40) ride so high when Walt Disney didn't even make the cut? (He was, though, indirectly represented through his creation Mickey Mouse (17).)

Oprah Winfrey and Superman as Numbers 1 and 2, respectively, were choices as dubious as they were disparate. Uncontestable entries like Presley (3), Ali (16) and Sinatra (27) each warranted their high placements, but the bulk of the roster was populated by flavors-of-the-month like Gwen Stefani (142), Dr. Phil (194) and Cartman (198). Even more preposterously, the Friends cast (11) grossly outranked The Three Stooges (167).

Of course, VH1 saw no need to uphold its contention that it was sequencing only those who have "significantly inspired and impacted American popular culture." It's obvious that most were picked simply to appeal to the music channel's young-and-hip target demographics, something evidenced most pointedly by the absurd placement of JFK Jr. (24) above JFK himself (32).

Not that subjective ranking is always worthless. Indeed, one of my favorite books and thus a frequent subject of discussions with my KIRO callers is The 100. It's an offbeat, single-volume history of our civilization which constitutes the most ambitious list ever. Therein science historian Michael Hart sequenced the most influential people of all time.

But instead of assembling his hundred names over an afternoon or two as some hack TV producer lazily would, Hart vigorously and comprehensively defended every choice in a style which displayed his formidable knowledge of history, science, the arts and philosophy. Thus each biographical sketch was actually a lengthy essay explaining why, say, Columbus (9) places just ahead of Einstein (10), yet right behind Gutenberg (8).

Sitting atop this group of ultra-achievers is Mohammad. Hart argued that his combined religious, political and military impact in the 7th Century and his continued shaping of today’s world makes The Prophet the single most influential person ever. That of course also puts him ahead of fellow historical heavyweights Newton (2) and Christ (3), a ranking which, upon the tome's 1978 release, publicly outraged several American fundamentalist preachers. It's also a choice with which another incendiary man of the cloth, Osama bin Ladin, presumably agrees.

But it's doubtful big-picture rankings like Hart's will ever be in fashion. On tonight's local newscast, you'll more likely be asked which showbiz babes you find "hot". Well, I already told you who I think is hot. (And this blog is not taking a poll on why at least two of my Top 5 are, alas, gay.)

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