Scott Adams and Dilbert

Scott Adams, cartoonist and creator of "Dilbert," poses for a portrait in his home office on Monday, January 6, 2014. After a recent racist tirade, Adams and his strip was dumped by nearly every paper in the country.

(Photo By Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

A Poll as Right-Wing Racist Troll: The Real Lessons From 'Dilbert' This Week

Forget Scott Adams. As is so often the case, the central figure in this story is much less important and interesting than its context.

Cartoonist Scott Adams, creator of the once-funny comic strip "Dilbert," has finally gotten what he always wanted. For a long time now, Adams has acted like that kid in third grade who craves negative attention. Now he's got it. Adams reportedly said:

"If nearly half of all Blacks are not okay with White people … that's a hate group ... the best advice I would give to White people is to get the hell away from Black people ..."

Publishers are dropping his strip left and right. But forget Adams. As is so often the case, the central figure in this story is much less important and interesting than its context. The Rasmussen poll that inspired Adams is an object lesson in the use of polling and media to divide and obscure rather than unite and illuminate.

Polling is an imperfect art, but an interesting and useful one. Here's how I first came to it: When I was a teenager I took a battery of career tests to help me pick a major. It wasn't that nothing interested me. On the contrary; pretty much everything did. The neurological condition known as ADHD wasn't understood back then; all my family and I knew was that I was intrigued by many subjects but had problems focusing on one. ("The way to know God is to love many things," said Van Gogh, but he's hardly a healthy role model.)

Rasmussen conducted a poll which, if taken seriously, could alter people's understanding of their society... It was bound to cause trouble, and it did.

Those tests narrowed my suggested career tracks down to four: musician, writer, politician (a role for which I'm temperamentally unsuited), and—believe it or not—pollster. Unexpected, but it made sense. I was drawn to math early in life, I loved politics, and I was fascinated by language and thought, the things polling is theoretically designed to measure. ("Theoretical" being the key word.)

As I've done all of those things except being a politician, and I worked for a rather successful one of those. Life, as Kierkegaard said, can only be understood backwards but has to be lived forward. I tell you this so that you understand the perspective I bring to this story, and why I was immediately skeptical. The 'poll results' are trash, but the story illustrates five important points to consider when reading about polls or politics.

1. Transparency matters, in news and in media.

Rasmussen conducted a poll which, if taken seriously, could alter people's understanding of their society. Then they hid the details behind a paywall. That's not just secretive and greedy; it's irresponsible. It was bound to cause trouble, and it did.

The media then reported on this sensational 'finding,' often without the necessary context. The outlets that did that are equally culpable. Pollsters and journalists have an obligation to the truth, regardless of how they make their money.

2. Language is all-important.

In polling, each question's exact phrasing is important. Rasmussen's respondents were asked, "Do you agree or disagree with this statement: 'It's OK to be white.'" That turns out to be a right-wing catchphrase well-known to people like Adams. I hadn't heard it before, and I suspect many others hadn't either. I would find the question puzzling, as I'm sure most other people did. "OK"? Compared to what? Why are you asking me that?

People want to give the right answers to a pollster. They might be inclined to say "no" if they think that's what the pollster wants to hear. They'd be even more likely to answer "I don't know" if they don't understand the purpose of the question. Which gets us to the next point:

3. We need to know who said what, and in what numbers.

A poll's crosstabs—which people answered which questions, and in what proportions?—tell us how to read the poll. Did "nearly half of all Blacks" say they "are not okay with White people?" We eventually learned that a majority of Black people polled (53 percent) said sure, it's ok to be white. 21 percent said they weren't sure.

Of the 26 percent (one in four Black people) who said they disagreed that "it's OK to be white," some may have thought that was the answer the pollster wanted. (Maybe it was.) Some may have misunderstood the question—because, let's face it, it's a weird thing to ask someone. But there's no way to accurately interpret this data and conclude most Black people "are not okay" with Whites. The information is too messy and too broken.

And guess what? 20 percent of White people didn't agree that it's "OK" to be White. Maybe they thought, "No, it's not; it's great to be White." But it's more likely that many of them were confused by the question, too.

4. Polling can be trolling.

Most people know that the wording of a question can shape the answer. That weapon has been wielded against the left many times. It's even worse than that in this case. This question was not designed to study popular opinion but to provoke controversy and promote a viral saying popular among white nationalists. This is the behavior of online trolls, not professionals.

To be clear: I'm not opposed to a 'conservative' or 'Republican-leaning' polling firm on principle. Democratic and independent firms have their biases, too. It would be irresponsible for any of them to act this way.

What this says for Rasmussen's future credibility in the media is anybody's guess. I know what I think.

5. What's the opposite of 'Black Lives Matter'?

This question and the reactions from Adams, Elon Musk, and others show a fundamental misunderstanding of (or obfuscation about) racial justice in general and Black Lives Matter specifically—not only the movement, but the phrase itself. Some White people already feel those words lower their social status. That idea has been drummed into them by demagogues who want them to believe that any advance in justice for others is a loss for them. It's a zero-sum game that divides and exploits; as in, "they care about them but not about us."

But BLM doesn't negate White people. The opposite of "Black Lives Matter" isn't "White people are OK." It's "Black Lives Don't Matter." That's the injustice the movement was created to resist. White lives don't figure into it at all, and they shouldn't. It's a movement by, for, and about Black people. Working-class Whites should build solidarity, not just around BLM, but on the economic injustices that affect them, along with Blacks and most other Americans.

As far as I can see, the sole purpose of this unprofessional question was to stoke the imaginary conflict between lower-income Whites and Black people to make money for Rasmussen. That's unprofessional, sleazy, demagogic, and definitely not "OK."

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