With the polls static, people are resorting to the Latham-Albrechtsen thesis (a term hitherto reserved for questions of Prince Harry’s biological parenthood) – the idea that people are using them to register a soft protest pseudo-vote, and everything’s gone meta.

This, as Norman Abjorensen suggested this week, could come down to Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’, Rumsfeld’s crib of the point made by Nicholas Taleb in ‘The Black Swan’ that the utterly unexpected (because unknowable) event restructures not only the present, but the past, because we have to revise our understanding of how reality works.

However, this thought, that some are clinging to in desperation (not Abjorensen I hasten to add), ignores a few things:

1) The divergence between polling and voting isn’t an unknown unknown – it’s something people have been aware of for years.

2) it’s factored in by the error bars, which plug in feedback from past polls to arrive at a range.

3) knowns and unknowns don’t have equal weighting. If they did, reality and experience would have no structure, and we couldn’t act. The double unknown that transforms reality is, by definition, the ultra-rare event.

4) known unknowns can be mistaken for double unknowns. The former are predictable (and factored in by error bars), the latter by definition, unassessable – in other words, they’re as likely to favour Labor as Liberal. The Libs might do a Canadian Conservatives and go down to 30 seats total. Never happen? Nothing never happens.

5) Queensland’s low previous Labor result (42.9%) makes things look tricky. But that only means either a) it’s swinging monumentally to maintain the even 54-46 2PP average, or b) it swings less and NSW and VIC swing high to make the average. Either way that opens up a huge tranche of seats for Labor.

6) People might be giving a higher ‘preferred PM’ rating to Howard (contra the approval ratings) because they don’t know what ‘preferred’ means – thinking it’s ‘current’ or incumbent. Outlandish? Of course. As any decent unknown unknown should be.

So vigilance, vigilance. But not self-induced collywobbles.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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