Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
May 14th, 2006


Margin of error

Besides the Daily, Stanford is home to a number of minor student newspapers, but by far the most notorious of them is The Stanford Review, the news-with-an-agenda publication that would praise itself as “America’s Finest News Source”, had parody paper The Onion not used the tagline first. If I had some fun criticising criticisms of The Blueprint in high school, I’ll have a ball with this paper.

When the Blueprint was censored by the St. X administration a year ago, I had no qualms about defending their right to free speech. But despite the Review’s sometimes overly harsh treatment by the Stanford student body, I could never defend what I seem to always find in this publication. Case in point: this week’s front page story, purportedly gauging the Stanford student body’s liberalness.

Before we begin, a disclaimer: I’m no statistics expert. But I know faulty statistics when I see them.

Let’s start with the headline: “Exactly How Liberal is Stanford University?” It’s no secret that the San Francisco area (and thus Stanford) is more left-leaning then, say, Cincinnati. But how is a respectable newspaper supposed to lead into a survey by assuming its intended outcome as indisputable fact, and then asking “to what extent?” In high school I was taught to view statistics with a good deal of skepticism, and I now know why. During the last presidential elections we all heard the term “margin of error” more than we cared to, the reason being that various polling practices may contribute to higher inaccuracy in the poll numbers. This survey provided no such information, only that “3,767 data points” were examined. I suppose it wouldn’t be too hard for an inquisitive student to figure it out, but you have to be suspicious of a survey that isn’t too forthcoming with its inner workings.

There’s also the issue that they didn’t go out and randomly poll people. Like any student hoping to casually learn more about their peers, they hopped over to the Facebook. After all, all of Stanford is on the Facebook, and people generally present their true identity on that site, no? Wrong on both counts. I could probably run a “study” of my own to find “Exactly How Common is Marriage at Stanford University?” Based on how many notifications I get from people jokingly trying to state themselves as “married” on the site, the results would be shocking to any family-values conservative. And many, believe it or not, refrain from opening up their identities for the school-age public to gawk at. So no: not everyone is on there, and it’s entirely possible that conservatives with a disdain for the “liberal” status quo here might keep themselves off the site.

But I can almost understand the Review’s reliance on a hardly-reliable site as a source. They don’t have nearly as many staff members as the Daily, for example. What I cannot accept is the analysis that follows below the fold. Among the findings is the observation that “the co-ops at Stanford are among the most liberal places to live on-campus.” They promptly continue to note that “Residents in co-ops must subscribe to a certain degree of communitarism [sic].” I’m not sure if they simply misspelled the word “communitarianism” or meant “communism” instead, because communitarianism doesn’t really fit into the left-versus-right ideology in which the Review is trying to frame this issue, and they seem to be criticising the trademark communal lifestyle at these residences as some form of communism. (They probably subscribe to the notion that both small-scale communism and full-scale Marxism-Leninism are synonymous, for that matter.)

And in presenting political affiliations as a left-versus-right affair, the Review is horribly oversimplifying the situation. Although it includes libertarianism – a camp that is usually relegated to its own axis, opposite the umbrella of totalitarianist ideologies – the Review chose to keep the large bar graph simple, sticking libertarianism to the right of “Very Conservative”. They’re a new kind of neocon, I suppose. The problem is that libertarianism is not exclusive of other ideologies. How, for example, would you categorize the Green Movement? These issues suggest a flaw in the assumptions that the reporters made when conducting this study. The Facebook’s “Political Views” categorization scheme is only a casual one, intended to be usable even by those who hardly care to understand political reality. Such a scheme is not appropriate for use by a newspaper, and I don’t think Mr. Zuckerberg has ever claimed it did.

The fact that the Review continually publishes material of this caliber seriously undermines the paper’s goals of getting door-to-door distribution. It’s a shame that a newspaper that wants to be viewed as the unjustly-treated underdog refuses to rise above the level of amateur journalism, and it’s sad that the Review staunchly hangs on to the outmoded genre of partisan journalism.


  1. I’m still not a fan of The Review, but the paper’s latest diatribe against the ethnic theme dorm program deserves comment, because I don’t think the reactions I’ve seen are a...