Referendums, Models, Democracy, and A.I.s / by Rob Smith

A friend of mine recently posted a link to a ComRes poll, published in the Sunday Mirror, taken on the Sunday after the Brexit vote. The opening paragraph of the article that presents the poll results reads:

the public is more likely to think that the existing result should stand and Britain should leave (50%), than think a second referendum should be held (39%).

I was surprised by this, until I actually read the results.When asked the whether they agreed with the statement "The result of the existing referendum should be honoured and Britain should leave the EU" unsurprisingly 78 percent of Remain voters disagreed. The surprise is that  21 percent of the Leave voters disagreed as well!Note that Leave won 52 percent to 48 percent, roughly. So, if only 4 percent of Leave voters reconsidered, and changed their vote, it would have been a tie. And, from the phrasing of the question, and the response from Leave voters, it would seem that's a real possibility, only three days after the referendum.Yet, this seems not to be the case based on the ComRes poll's opening paragraph. Why? In case you haven't clocked it yet, it's because what they've done is averaged Remain voters agreement with the statement above (a total 100-78 percent) and Leave voters agreement with the statement above (a total of 100-21 percent) to come up with about 50 percent, and the presented this numerical conclusion as the idea that

the public is more likely to think that the existing result should stand and Britain should leave (50%)

Do I think what the Mirror and ComRes has done in their first paragraph is misleading: yes. But I don't want that thought to obscure an even larger point, and that is that all polls (including referendums) have representational bias, particularly when the polls concern complex human issues.Statistical interpretations involve summarizing over things, by their very nature. And when those things are the thoughts of people about complex issues, something is always lost. Reducing things to a few a simple questions, or one, reduces complex issues to a simple percentage of votes, in effect an average response.As G.E.P. Box famously said, all models are wrong, some models are useful. Polls are statistical models of complex human matters.It is by this fact that polls are a blunt instrument for research in social sciences, and as a tool in governance.I'd say that putting polls in charge is actually like putting an A.I. in charge, and we have to note that not only does current technology makes this possibility tempting, it makes the likelihood of being sold more governance-by-referendum, and perhaps even governance-by-data analysis, a distinct possibility. We have to be wary of this temptation.Polls, like A.I.s, are a formal systems that ask pat questions, and reduce complex issues to numbers, check boxes, and the interpretations of the statistics that result. Polls, like many modern A.I.s, draw on statistics from humans (e.g., Big Data analysis) to determine a conclusion. The new convenience of such systems (be they Big Data A.I.s or polls) can mask the inevitable representational biases that formal systems cannot avoid. That's bad enough, but one must also be aware that these biases can become self reinforcing, and that they can also be manipulated by those who create the systems (polls) and those who interpret their conclusions.This is the reason that we need to sustain the idea of community-based indirect democracy. Direct democracy based on massive referendums or Big Data Analysis will always be something more like mob rule than real representation of people's interests, due the the simplifications and biases that formal systems always induce, and the biases and interpretations that can be manipulated by those who control those systems. Electing a real person, who represents a community of constituents small enough to really build relationships with, is a protection against this, and allows for the creation of real, responsive, human democracy.Let's hope that this blunt referendum result can be turned into something that's more responsive to what people really want and need. And let's all write our M.P.s.