What Do I Know?
When I fly alone on business, I like to kick back by reading pulp science fiction from the late 1940s and 1950s. Sometimes I enjoy the novels for their own qualities, a secret pleasure, a change from journal articles and SPSS output. But more often I read the books for what I can learn about the time when they were written. I'm a historian by training: we're like that.
On the flight from Boston to Miami for the annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, I passed the time by reading a 1951 sf novel by Raymond F. Jones, The Alien, which I had bought for $1.50 from my favorite book distributor. Mid-novel and mid-flight I stumbled upon this:
"I don't care how you do it. You've got to give them what they want. Either that or fold up the experiment. The latest semi-weekly poll shows they effectively control 80 million votes."
Think about it: this is 1951. There were, what, maybe ten polling firms around in those days, max? And yet this author extrapolates to a future 120 years away in which the head of a scientific laboratory is making a decision based on a poll. Do politicians pander?
I can perhaps be forgiven for being distracted from the exciting plot, based on completely implausible physics. Now the author has me thinking about 1951-and 2005-instead of the late twenty-first century.
It seems that the public on this future Planet Earth has become disillusioned with its leaders and longs for guidance. The scientists aboard the Lavoisier, on a mission in the asteroid belt, make a discovery that inadvertently fills the void. They find the preserved liquid remains of a great leader of a powerful but now extinct race, and the formula for bringing him back to life. Once word reaches Earth of the alien's size and purported greatness (lots of records around him, written on metal sheets), and that scientists will bring him back to try to revive him, the world is swept by religious enthusiasm for the new leader. And the political power of that religious movement is measured by the polls. Unfortunately, the reconstituted über-leader turns out to be a nasty dude.
Setting aside the genre aspects of the novel, the future portrayed in this 1951 novel has some aspects familiar to current social commentators and pollsters: pop cynicism, distrust of traditional leadership, religion in politics, and a highly motivated bloc of voters.
But one aspect of Jones' novel will seem alien to early-twenty-first century readers: the almost complete absence of women from this story of science and power. (Must be that side-of-the-brain thing.) The only even moderately prominent female character is a doctor who helps revive the new leader. Women are not even mentioned as swing voters!
So while the author had the foresight to predict the growing power of polls, he could not escape the male-centered view that so dominated genre fiction of the late 1940s and 1950s. He missed one of the most important social changes that would take place in the next half-century.
As public opinion researchers, we can't make the same mistake of being too focused on the conditions of our own moment in time. We need to keep an eye out for underlying change (and continuity), not just the news story of the day. To this end, a little historical perspective, even derived from a pulp novel, can be a good, and perhaps humbling, thing.
John Benson is managing director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program, Harvard School of Public Health, and associate editor of Public Opinion Pros.
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