I just finished reading, “The Swerve”, by Stephen Greenblatt, a story about the re-birth of humanism and an explanation of how the world became modern. The book won both a Pulitzer and National Book Award for non-fiction. I might add that it is a great read for a whole host of reasons, one of them being that the phrase in the Declaration of Independence about the “pursuit of happiness” has a source. That particular phrase sets America apart from all other nations in the world simply because happiness is such an opaque term and yet completely meaningful. As it happens, it comes from Lucretius’ didactic poem, “On the Nature of Things” (De Rerum Natura).

What did Lucretius mean by happiness? According to Greenblatt, it was the absence of fear in a metaphysical sense. Life for Lucretius, as well as for Epicurus, Lucretius’ philosophical teacher, was governed by gods. The gods needed appeasing in order to have a happy life. For Epicurus and Lucretius, the world was not governed by gods since it was made up of tiny little particles (atoms) that were constantly forming and reforming. If that was true, there were no gods. In the absence of gods, at least to Lucretius, there was a freedom of action. No gods would ever be displeased. Life could be lived by striving for happiness.

Greenblatt posits that the re-birth of humanism, which set the Renaissance in motion, was largely due to the re-finding of Lucretius’ manuscript by a former papal secretary, Poggio Bracciolini. Bracciolini did find the manuscript in a monastery in Germany, had it copied and forwarded it to Niccolo de Niccoli,  a like minded and wealthy patron of the arts in the circle of Cosimo de Medici. Whether Lucretius’ tract is entirely responsible for the modern era may be subject to critique, but it makes for a riveting story, particularly because we find that no other than Thomas Jefferson had four copies of “On the Nature of Things” when he died.


The New York Times had an article about reliable polling in the political realm yesterday (http://nyti.ms/1na5rUV ) stating that biased polls “employ dubious weighting and sampling practices.” Of course the greatest poll blunder in the recent past was the one used by Mitt Romney, who believed he was going to win in 2012. But I have a beef with polls regarding issues as well.

The issue that I am interested in, the legality of antique ivory, is being affected by the slaughter of elephants. I am told that antique ivory generates a passion for more ivory, including newly poached ivory, as if owning ivory was an addiction. That is absurd. And yet polls conducted by conservationists, whose side I am, in fact, on, lean on such disinformation. Other than the fact that antique ivory comes from elephants, the slaughter has no relation to antique ivory. Any opinion poll, unless it is very clearly worded, will endorse the position that all ivory should be banned.

What is being lost when we rely on polls that are clearly of the moment and/or are being heavily influenced by some form of propaganda? To my mind, It is a bit like looking at a three dimensional problem through a one dimensional lens. In regard to antique ivory, there is a cultural relevance that is being ignored. It is odd that the Democrats, who are hot on the issue of banning ivory, don’t see that in their haste to be politically correct that they are trampling on the culture of all mankind.

I don’t think that the blindness that can be generated by weighted polls is the sole problem with the ivory issue. I also feel that politicians enter into arenas in which they are completely ignorant simply because of poll numbers. In other words, politicians looking for safe, vote getting issues, jump into areas about which they know nothing for the sake of positive publicity. This compounds the problem making any issue even more difficult to understand because it pits one side against the other and generates inane partisan debate.

Could things get more complicated? Yes, because the polling never stops. Numbers are used like bludgeons to score points.  Their reliability should be questioned. I am not talking solely about ivory at this point. This is our society. Clear, rational and moral action is set aside in favor of what a poll might say. This is not only absurd, it is pathetic.


I was wondering about the value of polls the other day when it became clear to me that polling isn’t a problem. The problem I perceive has to do with politicians who make decisions according to polls. This was made particularly clear by the email I read by one New York politician who claimed that 80% of New Yorkers wanted to ban ivory to save elephants and that passing such a law was a a slam dunk, no brainer thing to do. So much for having principles.

There are so many flaws to the construct of any poll. The foremost has to do with how a question is formatted. Then you might need to know how it was asked–by telephone, on the street, etc. The order of the questions has significance as well. Imagine the following three questions. Do you know that elephants are being killed for ivory? Do you want to see this stopped? Do you think the sale of all ivory should be banned? Once the first question has been posed, the answers to the second two questions are virtually a no brainer.

Governing by poll inevitably leads to mediocrity. Nuance is removed when someone is being guided by polls just as the inevitable answers to the three questions above ignores thousands of years of cultural development by focusing on one aspect of a crisis. Indeed, crises lend themselves to draconian measures, something all dictators have exploited through time in order to increase their control.

I would love to start a movement to get people to resist polling for a year, perhaps the year running up to the next presidential election. Let’s hear what the candidates have to say without the benefit of a poll to guide them. I would love to know if they could figure out how to think, to run a course of thought to a conclusion based on their experience and brain power. This might just be too much to ask.