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Is the recession over and do you believe 1+1=2?

October 11, 2010

Is the answer to “Is 1+1=2” based in one’s belief or is it factual?  How about, “Is the recession over?”  Both are fact based.

In a recent CNN poll* the question was asked, “Do you believe the recession is over?”.  74% responded saying the recession is not over.  This seems like a silly question to have been asked.  The question that was not asked is, “Do you know how a recession is defined?”  If that had been asked, I suspect that 74% would have responded with the wrong answer.

The beginning and end of a recession is defined by the Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) using a well defined process.**  According the the NBER there are several factors involved in determining when the economy is in recession.  A key factor is two quarters of declining real Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  When the NBER says the current recession ended in June 2009, the recession ended in 2009.  Q.E.D.

Rather than asking the public about their “belief” as to a condition of fact or at least one that has a defined authority that makes such a determination, the better question would have been one that could have been really answered by an opinion or “belief”.  Two better questions come to mind: “Do you believe the economy is in good shape?”  “Do you believe that economically, the worst is behind us?”

Not that it matters, but for the record, my answers would have been:
Do you believe the recession is over?   Yes (It’s not a matter of belief, it’s knowing that there is a definition)
Do you believe that economically, the worst is behind us?   Yes
Do you believe the economy is in good shape?  Duh, No

I don’t know which is worse.  A polling organization that asks a flawed question or people that respond without knowing what they’re talking about..

This poll question is probably a metaphor for what’s wrong with our society.  First, CNN asked a flawed question because they knew it would garner headlines.  They are, after all, in the business of selling news. Second, poll respondents are eager to respond with a definitive answer to something about which they know very little.  All of this could be eliminated if people learned the value of critical thinking and the virtue of being able to say, “I don’t know”.  I’m not sure what that would do to the pollsters’ business but it would be good for society if people recognized that not everything has a definitive answer.

* http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/26/recession-not-over-public-says/

** http://www.nber.org/cycles/recessions_faq.html

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