Friday, August 31, 2007

The wisdom of crowds

When poll results are announced in a sound bite or presented in a single sentence, the mind often fills in the rest. Some prediction markets, for example, have consistently recorded that trades believe a Democrat will win the 2008 Presidential elections, the odds trading at about 60%.

Based on that one snippet of information, one would anticipate that the same future market would predict the campaign in Iraq will soon be be drawing down. But interestingly, the percentage of traders who believed "U.S. Troops will begin leaving Iraq soon" dropped precipitously from an average of about 40% at the end of July to about 5% today. Here's the graph by month. The lower graph shows volume of trades.

This may reflect a more nuanced public understanding of the relationship between electoral politics and foreign policy. Or it may be a reflection of a change in perception in progress in Iraq, reasoning that no President, Republican or Democrat, can abandon a war that is being won.

People are funny. Let's look at a BBC-commissioned poll of Iraqis taken before the Surge, in March of 2007. The explanatory note says: "the poll was conducted by D3 Systems for the BBC, ABC News, ARD German TV and USA Today. More than 2,000 people were questioned in more than 450 neighbourhoods and villages across all 18 provinces of Iraq between 25 February and 5 March 2007. The margin of error is + or – 2.5%."

Question 16 on the BBC poll asks: "I am going to name a number of organizations. For each one, please tell me if you have a great deal of confidence, quite a lot of confidence, not very much confidence, or none at all?"

Here are the percentages for the US and UK forces:

2007 2005 2004 2003
Great deal of confidence 6 7 8 7
Quite a lot of confidence 12 11 17 12
Not very much confidence 30 23 23 20
None at all 52 55 43 52
Refused/don't know - 5 8 9

It was mildly surprising to see the percentage of people with a "great deal" and "quite a lot" of confidence unchanged from 2005 and 2003. But the surprises continue. Here's the answer set for "local leaders in your community".

2007 2005 2004 2003
Great deal of confidence 11 17 17 19
Quite a lot of confidence 34 23 34 26
Not very much confidence 34 29 22 21
None at all 21 21 16 17
Refused/don't know - 10 12 18

Now here's the answer set for the Iraqi Army.

2007 2005 2004 2003
Great deal of confidence 24 36 18 13
Quite a lot of confidence 37 31 38 25
Not very much confidence 25 18 25 29
None at all 14 12 10 16
Refused/don't know - 3 9 17

US and UK forces are less popular than "local leaders in your community", but surprisingly, not by that wide a margin. And if the BBC poll results are to be taken at face value, the respondents trust the Iraqi Army more than their local leaders. Does this reflect a general suspiciousness in Iraqi society? Who knows. But clearly a soundbite saying that only 18% of the Iraqi public have confidence in Coalition forces won't be fully understood until the reader goes straight to the full poll result.

In April, 2007 the University of Maryland surveyed attitudes in four Islamic countries, Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia as part of an effort to measure the effect of the War on Terror on perceptions in these countries. Here's a sample of the results of various questions.

Views of the US government

Favorable Unfavorable
Morocco 16 76
Egypt 4 93
Pakistan 15 67
Indonesia 20 66

The US Should Withdraw Forces From Islamic Countries

Agree Agree Somewhat
Morocco 37 35
Egypt 82 10
Pakistan 48 23
Indonesia 26 38

Approve on attacks on US troops in Iraq

Approve Mixed feelings Disapprove
Morocco 68 11 14
Egypt 91 2 4
Pakistan 35 13 35
Indonesia 19 11 61

Approve on attacks on US troops in Afghanistan

Approve Mixed feelings Disapprove
Morocco 61 14 17
Egypt 91 2 4
Pakistan 34 14 33
Indonesia 19 10 59

What's really striking about these figures is that Egypt, which is an American "ally", the end product of sophisticated diplomacy, the recipient of lavish aid apparently hates America worst of all. Going by the figures the US may be more popular in Iraq (as per BBC poll) and Pakistan (where there is US campaign against the Taliban right across the border) than in Egypt or Morocco. Moreover, there's hardly a dime's worth of difference between the perception of US forces in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The approvals of attacks on US troops in Afghanistan are virtually the same as those for Iraq. So which is the "good" war? And how is it again that returning to diplomacy will improve the image in the Arab world? In Egypt are we seeing the effects of the media perception of American actions as against the direct perception of American actions by the people of Iraq? Again who knows. But the example illustrates how hard it is to draw conclusions based on a partial reading of the polls.


Blogger Phoenix_Blogger said...

Perhaps it has to do with the comments from Hilary, Levin et. al. that the surge is working, albeit too little too late according to Hilary, which begs the question, what is enough?

Article at Salon

8/31/2007 11:07:00 AM  
Blogger watimebeing said...

What is it, beyond the questions asked, that is driving the responses?
This begs the insertion of "lies, damn lies, and ..., Egyptian, Moroccan MSM?"

8/31/2007 11:35:00 PM  

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