When surveys fail

There is, of course, no rule which states that the results of the survey companies should track and confirm each other, even if that is mostly what happens outside this country. But I think both Social Weather Stations and Pulse Asia, the two biggest polling companies hereabouts, know that they are really only as credible as their latest surveys —and that they can’t have wildly different results for polls covering the same period and using roughly the same sample size.

After all, survey companies that claim to be both intellectually honest and scientifically rigorous should not be bothered by variations in polling results, especially those presented by their competitors, whose methods and data they cannot control. Assuming that they do not tamper with their own data or make conclusions that their research does not support, they really have nothing to fear.

But wild variations in polling data don’t help the people make decisions, which survey companies are supposed to do. Instead of spurring genuine debate and fostering real change, pollsters sometimes only reinforce people’s confirmation bias, or their tendency to believe what they already believe, using polling data that suits their prejudices.

Readers of this column, for instance, must know that I have long ago concluded that SWS is not as credible in its survey-taking as Pulse Asia. Thus, for me, the most recent polls taken by these two firms on the popularity, approval and trust of Filipinos in President Rodrigo Duterte confirm both my own bias in favor of one survey-taker and of Duterte himself.

But I must point out that fellow pundits and commentators who choose to downplay the Pulse poll (or who ignore it altogether) in order to buttress their own story arc about the so-called “drastic” drop in the popularity and trust ratings of Duterte are at least as guilty as I am of showing their own biases. And the dramatic difference in the results of both surveys is not helping any.

Of course, opinions should be different from pundit to pundit and your mileage will certainly vary depending on which commentator you choose to listen to and believe. But survey-takers would certainly do a better job of helping form public opinion and clarifying national discourse if their science and their data weren’t so susceptible to partisan interpretation.

* * *

The would-be emir of the Islamic State’s Southeast Asia caliphate, Abu Sayyaf sub-leader Isnilon Hapilon, has been killed in the continuing military campaign to retake Marawi City. Hapilon was killed after midnight on Monday together with Omar Maute, half of the leadership of the eponymous Marawi-based group whose band laid siege to the city four months ago.

The end of the terrorist occupation of Marawi seems clearly at hand, after the loss of hundreds of lives on the part of the IS-inspired terrorists, the military and the civilian populace caught in between. There will be an urgent need to rebuild the scenic and historic Islamic City of the Philippines—but there will also be questions that will require answers now that the most serious terror threat to the country by far has been turned back.

It’s clear that the Armed Forces of the Philippines was woefully unprepared to respond to the IS-Maute attack. That is why it took this long to repel the relatively small (but obviously well-stocked and well-prepared) terrorist force.

The government and the AFP should understand that groups with similar plans have witnessed the lack of training and capability of our soldiers when it comes to the strategy devised in Marawi. It will be up to the authorities to address the gaps exploited so effectively by the terrorists during their takeover of the city.

I don’t know how long and how much it will take for the AFP to retrain and retool in order to respond more quickly and more effectively to groups that engage in urban warfare like the Mautes. But it has to be done, unless we want a repeat of what happened in the last four months.

And it’s no idle speculation that ruthless, opportunistic groups like those led by Hapilon and the Maute brothers may attempt another Marawi-style takeover in other parts of the country. In fact, the authorities have already warned that if more than one group stages similar attacks simultaneously in different locations, thus dividing the attention, manpower and logistics of the AFP, we’d really be in trouble.

And even more than retraining and retooling, the government needs to gather the right intelligence at the right time, in order to nip such terroristic uprisings in the bud. Which is not to say that the AFP failed to recognize the threat in Marawi before the takeover of the city happened—but the military could have known more about the threat at an earlier time, with the help of local officials on the ground, who could have been more observant, cooperative and forthcoming.

Of course, all of this should happen while the government rebuilds Marawi and gives aid, comfort and assistance to its displaced residents. The sooner the city gets back on its feet, the earlier it can put behind this bloody chapter in its and the country’s history.

Topics: When surveys fail , Survey companies , Social Weather Stations , Pulse Asia , President Rodrigo Duterte

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