By John Kell and Alan Murray
November 23, 2015

Yesterday, I traveled to Washington for a memorial service to honor the late, great Andy Kohut, who did more to popularize and professionalize public opinion polling than anyone other than George Gallup. He was founder of the Pew Research Center, where I briefly served as president before coming to Fortune.

 

Polling is under serious attack these days. For a taste of the critique, see Michael Barone’s recent piece here, or Jill Lepore’s here. Some of the criticism is misdirected by people who think polling’s highest purpose is to predict election outcomes. It’s not. But some reflects the inescapable fact that technology has changed how people communicate. We don’t much like talking on the phone these days – especially if the person on the other end wants 20 minutes of our scarce time to ask questions. Response rates, which were more than 90% in the mid-20th century heyday of polling, are less than 10% today, according to Pew. You don’t need a degree in statistics to recognize that’s a problem.

 

Like most technological disruptions, however, this one brings opportunities. Online polling has yet to establish its scientific rigor, but it is progressing. Even more promising, “big data” offers possible insights more reliable than polling ever could provide. Pew’s researchers, for instance, ask how often you read a newspaper or attend church – questions that they know evoke exaggerated answers. The new data world offers the potential to measure things like newspaper reads or church visits directly.

 

The promise of big data is already remaking political campaigns, and will eventually remake much of science, social science and industry. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine an area of our lives that won’t be affected by the explosion of data and data analytics in coming decades. But we will need more than a few Andy Kohuts to make music out of the noise, and reliably guide us to a new destination.

 

Meanwhile, Pfizer and Allergan have finalized plans for a merger that will be the largest in pharmaceutical history, move a once-great American company to Dublin, and add more fuel to the corporate tax debate. Details below.

 

Alan Murray
@alansmurray
alan.murray@fortune.com

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