''The willingness of the American public to participate is still remarkable, '' remarks Mervin Field, head of the California Poll. He says this after noting that ''refusal rates'' on surveys are higher than they used to be, with more people apprehensive about talking to strangers and jealous of their privacy.
Few people, however, turn down the survey taker because they're offended or puzzled at being asked their opinion on the great issues of the day. Everett Carll Ladd Jr. says he has never heard anyone ask why these complicated questions were being thrown at him. He attributes this to Americans' continuing ''love affair with direct-democracy ideals.''
Peggy Rosenthal, whose recent book, ''Words and Values,'' includes a section on public opinion polls, sees a link between opinion surveys and the ''relativism of our age.'' This, she explains, is the attitude that there is no such thing as absolute truth - that everything is relative and whatever most people believe is the truth.
Then there's our whole ''fascination with quantification,'' Ms. Rosenthal says. ''Opinion polls work so well with the computer age.''
Poll critic Michael Wheeler underscores Americans' love for a ''play off.'' ''We're consumers of a certain kind of public opinion data,'' he says, ''the kind that stipulates contest.''