Whom Can You Trust?

My work among you is finished, at least temporarily. With this column, I begin a four-month leave of absence to commune with the unconventionally wise at Harvard University, where I will be a Shorenstein Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before I depart, I offer these thoughts to guide you until we reconvene in the next millennium:

TRUST WOMEN

At least trust them not to bribe you, says a research team from the University of Maryland and American University that studied corruption around the world. The team's review of polling and other data from dozens of countries revealed that "women pay bribes less frequently and are less likely to condone corruption." In one study conducted three years ago in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, male managers of small businesses were 27 percent more likely to admit they had made "unofficial payments" to government officials than female managers were.

Similarly, the researchers correlated levels of government corruption with the proportion of women in the national legislature and the number of women in the work force. They found that "societies with more women in the labor force and parliament have lower levels of corruption," reported Anand Swamy, Steve Knack, Young Lee and Omar Azfar in a paper presented in Washington at the annual meeting of the International Society for New Institutional Economics.

DON'T TRUST INTERNET POLLS

Promise me this: While I'm gone, please, oh please, don't take Internet polls seriously. For several years now, your Wiz has condemned those ghastly Web pseudo-surveys. But not everybody's paying attention.

Certainly not the folks over at ABC.com, "Good Morning America" and the Boston Herald. A few weeks ago, an ABC.com online survey conducted on Internet "addiction" managed to generate major buzz around the world by suggesting that 5.7 percent of all Internet users were addicted to the Internet. It was a finding startling enough to make the front page of the Herald, where the reporter breathlessly claimed that "the computer mouse might as well be a syringe full of heroin for an estimated 11 million worldwide . . . ." Oh, my.

The problem, of course is that Internet polls are based on samples of people who don't look very much like the population as a whole. Online surveys also remain hugely susceptible to electronic ballot stuffing; few sites restrict access, so you can answer the posted question as many times as you want.

The ABC.com poll, which was not conducted by the ABC News polling unit, was "hopelessly flawed," says James Beniger of the University of Southern California, a past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research.

Beniger noted that the "survey accompanied on that Web site an ABC story on Internet addiction, which thereby most likely influenced the responses of all those who completed the survey after reading that story on the very same topic."

Also, "the survey appeared on only a single Web site, that of ABC News, which means that it is completely biased toward the particular kinds of people who visit that site."

But this is a story with a happy ending. Last Tuesday, the ABC Webmasters, in response to criticism inside and outside the company and following a call from your Wiz, added this disclaimer to the online poll's question of the day: "Not a scientific poll; for entertainment only."

TRUST YOUR FEELINGS

Despite what you read in the newspaper or see on the evening news, America is feeling remarkably good about itself, according to a study sponsored by the National Commission on Civic Renewal. Some of the changes since 1994 have been nothing short of astonishing.

Five years ago, poll takers for Roper Starch Worldwide found that 34 percent of all adult respondents said they trusted other people. In 1997, the last year for which data were available, more than half--53 percent--said they trusted others. Perhaps even more remarkable: The percentage of people who said they trusted the government increased from 29 percent to 38 percent between 1994 and 1997, and it continues to trend upward in other polls, the commission reported.

At the same time, the percentage of Americans who said they're afraid to walk home at night fell from 47 percent in 1994 to 38 percent in 1997. No wonder: During that time, the reported crimes per 1,000 persons dropped from 51.2 to 38.8.

FINAL THOUGHT

Is there anyone so truly wise that he or she can speak unconventionally in my absence? Perhaps. Last year, Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (the only humor magazine with eight Nobel Prize laureates on its editorial board) asked his readers, "Which field of science has the smartest people?" Astronomer Vinay Kashyap of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics offered this response:

Speaking of ranking the various

disciplines--

Politicians think they are Economists.

Economists think they are Social

Scientists.

Social Scientists think they are

Psychologists.

Psychologists think they are Biologists.

Biologists think they are Organic

Chemists.

Organic Chemists think they are

Physical Chemists.

Physical Chemists think they are

Physicists.

Physicists think they are

Mathematicians.

Mathematicians think they are God.

God . . . ummm . . . so happens that

God is an Astronomer.