ON THE AGENDA | NOVEMBER 19TH, 2015 | Will Friedman

Dan Yankelovich Honored for Excellence in Public Opinion Research

Will Friedman remarks on Dan Yankelovich's achievements and contributions to public opinion and democracy.

On November 10th, our co-founder Dan Yankelovich received the Roper Center's Warren J. Mitofsky Award for Excellence in Public Opinion Research at a dinner in New York City. Will Friedman, who has known Dan for over two decades, introduced Dan, who joined the event via Skype . Below are Will's remarks, lightly edited.

Thereís a story about Miles Davis at a White House dinner during the Reagan administration.

Supposedly, one of the guests naively asked him who he was and what he had done to warrant an invitation. Miles is said to have replied "Iíve changed the course of music five or six times. How about you?"

If Miles was a genius in music, Dan Yankelovich is a genius in our field.

Dan has changed the course of our thinking about public opinion, marketing and democracy five or six times. His many seminal insights have enlightened us on such questions as:

  • How public opinion changes
  • How public thinking differs from expert thinking without being inferior to it
  • How to help the public play its essential democratic role
  • How to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods into a unified research strategy
  • And what all of this means for market research, democracy, public policy, and true leadership

Central to his many contributions, Dan has given us a practical and meaningful way to think about the quality of public opinion and the stages that people go through to achieve what he calls public judgment. Public judgment is in contrast to raw, unstable, off-the-cuff reactions, like those we often see in polling.

As heís shown, the concept of public judgment has gone a long way toward clarifying why some research results are better guides for policymaking than others -- because they are less, in his highly scientific term, "mushy."

Tonight, we honor this pioneering social scientist and esteemed figure in the worlds of polling, marketing, and democratic thought and practice. But note that his reputation was not always so: AAPOR once reviewed Dan's book, Coming to Public Judgment, by asking "Why is Yankelovich being so perverse?"

And, indeed, Dan's ideas have seemed perverse at times to various establishments, in the way the insights of innovative thinkers can.

For example, he and our brilliant mutual colleague and friend Jean Johnson once presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on how to engage the public on science-heavy public issues, like climate change.

Danís clear message was this: The heavy emphasis scientists often place on science literacy for all is fine and good, but it will not engage most people or do much to help the nation resolve science-related problems.

Much more than technical scientific knowledge, he argued, the public needs to understand the practical consequences of an issue like global warming along with potential solutions and their practical tradeoffs.

Dan has noted many times that information, by itself, rarely changes opinion in real time. As such, he should not have been surprised that, when the Q&A rolled around, he got question after question about how to help people better understand technical scientific knowledge.

As the session ended, Dan took the mike and forcefully exclaimed, "You are not going to make them into mini-scientists! Itís just not going to work." In other words, he attempted to help the audience along what he likes to call their learning curve.

Itís taken a number of fields a while to catch up with what makes Danís ideas, not perverse, but visionary, innovative, and profoundly pragmatic. And itís wonderful that we have caught up and are honoring him tonight.

A classic example of Danís mind at work was his cutting response to Robert MacNamaraís belief that he could quantify success in the Vietnam War through body counts. As Dan summed up this mistaken kind of thinking:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist. This is suicide.

Iíve experienced Dan's vibrant intellect each time Iíve visited him at his lovely home north of San Diego. Inevitably, he offers you coffee, cookies and a sun hat from his ample collection. You settle into a chair on the peaceful patio behind his house, and the incisive insights pour forth: about under-appreciated trends, wrong-headed solutions, unseen business opportunities, or his latest project. Youíre writing another book? Youíre founding a center for pragmatic social science research? Well, I guess thatís how you get to change peopleís thinking five or six timesÖ

Indeed, Dan has worked steadily, even relentlessly, to put his ideas into practice throughout his highly productive life. He led numerous landmark studies, on the shifting values of the 60s generation; on education, workforce and productivity issues; on US-Soviet relations; and many other important topics. He has authored 13 books, with his latest, Wicked Problems, Workable Solutions, coming out just this year. He has founded or co-founded an amazing collection of enterprises. These include Yankelovich, Skelly and White, The NY Times/ Yankelovich poll, The Yankelovich Center for Social Science Research at UC San Diego, and, along with Cyrus Vance in 1975, the organization it is now my privilege to lead, Public Agenda.

Among Danís adages for living a good life is this: Take responsibility for the well-being of our democracy.

It takes more than just voting to make democracy work. It takes a responsible, thoughtful public voice. All Americans should be conscious of how preciousóand fragileóour democracy is. Participating in making it a more just and effective problem-solving institution is a privilege, and ought to be a source of immense personal satisfaction.

Thank you, Dan, for living by that code, and for helping all of us do so better than we could have done without you.



Submitted by: John on Friday, November 27th, 2015

I love this post, you should publish more articles :)


Submitted by: Anonymous Submission on Thursday, December 10th, 2015

A great man and a great author.
He deserves that :).
Hope he will write book for Taxes soon :)

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