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.
• Pfizer, Allergan agree to merge
Pfizer and Allergan have agreed to a merger of more than $150 billion that would create the world’s largest drug maker and also move one of the top U.S. names to a foreign country. The deal – expected to be announced today – would be the largest inversion ever. Those deals enable a U.S. firm to move abroad and take advantage of a lower corporate tax rate elsewhere. To help get that tax rate, the deal will be structured as a reverse merger with Dublin-based Allergan buying larger Pfizer. WSJ reports Pfizer CEO Ian Read will lead the company.
Wall Street Journal (subscription required)
• Walmart to begin Cyber Monday early
The world’s largest retailer is planning to offer its Cyber Monday deals beginning on Sunday for the first time ever, looking to get a head start on an online shopping day that is expected to generate $3 billion across the retail industry. Cyber Monday has become an important component to a retailer’s holiday strategy – it is the first Monday after the Thanksgiving weekend holiday when shoppers are back at work in front of their computers. This year, Cyber Monday sales are expected to climb 11%, which is three times faster than retail sales overall.
• Merck CEO blasts Turing Pharma
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier aimed to draw a clear line between the drug companies that have come under pressure recently for drastically increasing prices and established pharmaceutical giants that are trying to create new drugs. He specifically targeted Turing Pharmaceuticals – a drug company that raised the price of a life-saving treatment by more than 5,000% earlier this year. “Turing is not the market,” Frazier said. “This is a hedge fund guy masquerading as a pharma exec.”
• Fed official bullish on rate hike
San Francisco Fed President John Williams over the weekend said he thinks there is a “strong case” for raising interest rates when Federal Reserve policymakers meet next month as long as U.S. economic data does not disappoint. Williams added that the rate hikes would not only be gradual, but would not follow the stair-step pattern that characterized the Fed’s last cycle when it raised rates by a quarter of a percentage point at every meeting.
Around the Water Cooler
• Zuckerberg to take paternity leave
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg intends to take two months of paternity leave after his daughter is born, citing studies that show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, the outcomes are better for the children and families. “At Facebook we offer our US employees up to 4 months of paid maternity or paternity leave which they can take throughout the year,” Zuckerberg said. His decision is seen as a major endorsement of the practice – and it comes as paternal leave has become a hot topic of late with many big corporations announcing new and more generous policies.
• Fiat Chrysler expands tuition benefit
Fiat Chrysler is expanding an offer of free college tuition through a partnership with Strayer University to include the auto maker’s employees’ spouses and children, an expanded benefit meant to attract and retain dealership employees. At FCA, annual retention at dealerships is in the 65% to 85% range, meaning that in some instances as much as 35% of jobs are turning over at least once every 12 months. The initial rollout earlier this year, which was intended for employees, included 356 dealerships across several southern states.
• Unilever’s sustainability challenge
Unilever CEO Paul Polman has a notable goal: he has made it a top priority for the consumer goods giant to pursue sustainable production for all goods it sells. He isn’t alone in this pursuit but as the New York Times points out, this goal is also difficult to achieve as “sustainability” means different things to different people. And consider the vastness of the effort: Unilever is trying to apply this term to a large number of ingredients and processes in the 1,000 mass-market brands Unilever makes – resulting in major complications.
New York Times (subscription required)
• Gates touts philanthropy in China
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is encouraging China to amend legislation to make it easier for philanthropy to grow, saying the status quo in the Asian nation was “not ideal.” Gates was in China to inaugurate the China Global Philanthropy Institute, an initiative that the foundation formed by Gates and his wife Melinda kicked off with four other philanthropists, including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. founder and chairman Jack Ma. Gates is known for his encouragement that billionaires vow to donate most of their wealth throughout their lifetime or in their wills – a pledge he himself has made.
5 things to know this week
Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and U.S. GDP — 5 Things to Know for the Week Ahead. Today’s story can be found here.