“How can I have any confidence in your polls since you missed so far the last time I trusted you?” demanded the churlish evening newscaster. She had a good point. Those who are tasked with prognosticating our future based upon a series of questions to random humans tend to speak with what can only be described as “high confidence” in their own ability and methodology. Perhaps being self-possessed with certainty is a requirement to getting other people to listen. And getting other people to listen, it seems increasingly so these days, is the way to make money.
“Well,” retorted the rather portly and now visibly perspiring guest, “this time we have heavily over-weighted for the straight white male.” Other than following up with the expected “what does that mean?” the interviewer simply smiled a knowing smile, looked directly into the camera with a near wink and went to commercial. It seemed that the magic formula had been perfected and that the next round of alchemy would indeed produce gold from lead.
As business leaders, consumers and voters, we are routinely subjected to the predictions of these surveys. They determine the aroma of detergent, how long (and if) the Shamrock Shake will be available and the priority of many political agenda. It prevents us from making giant investments for something our customers don’t want. But too often, these prophecies are way off. New Coke comes to mind. Still, they generally work.
The art, it appears, is using good math to get good samples, hope that good luck shows up and exude strong confidence — a good deal of it — that anyone can really expect to know the future. But what happens when our well-intentioned, if not deserved, confidence leads to smugness and blinding hubris? Can we believe our own sales pitch?