A COMPAS poll (attached) sponsored by the neo-con Frontier Centre for Public Policy offers an embarrassing example of a survey that sacrifices the discovery of new information in favour of eliciting specific answers for later use in building a political case.
The poll begins with this question:
Politicians talk about spending billions to fight carbon gases and also about higher taxes on gasoline and heating oil. How good a job have politicians done in providing evidence to justify their proposals?
In response, 66 per cent of the people said politicians were doing a “poor,” “very poor” or “bad job,” no great surprise when you realize that two weeks after this poll was conducted, the leading advocate of a federal carbon tax, Liberal leader Stephane Dion, led his party to the worst electoral showing in Liberal history. You would find a hard time finding a Canadian today who suggested that Dion had done a “good”, “very good” or “excellent job,”notwithstanding this polls results.
The second question was perhaps less predictable, but more manipulative. COMPAS offered two different scenarios after this setup:
Turning to the issue of debating climate change, global warming, and their causes, which of the following opinions is closest to you own?
Scenario one was:
The public has a right to more, fair and objective information from the media on the professional and scientific opinions of all sides in the debate.
… and it's a surprise that only 78 per cent of the people endorsed this motherhood statement.
Scenario two was:
The public needs no more information from the media on the opinions of all sides in the debate because car driving and other human activity are definitely the key climate problem.
Here's where we come off the rails. Any citizen who is engaged in this issue (and that SHOULD be every citizen) must want a full range of “fair and objective” information. But the FCPP (and apparently COMPAS) is clearly using this question to argue that we should also have to suffer a steady diet of the fraudulent pseudo-science peddled by industry-funded hacks like FCPP science advisor Tim Ball.
The COMPAS release states: “The overwhelming majority of Canadians calls on the media for more balance in its reporting.” The implication is that newspapers and TV stations should stop showing favouritism to real scientists and start giving equal time to people like Ball, who claim scientific credentials they don't have and who continue to make arguments that have been proven to be incorrect.
COMPAS and FCPP then wade deeper into this questionable debate.
In an either-or section, the survey sets out some alternative statements, but does so in a questionable and manipulative way. For example, the survey states: “”It’s said that global warming has reduced (my emphasis) the amount of Arctic ice and snow cover.” And it asks to what degree people think this is true.
Then COMPAS posited this as an alternative: “It’s said that changes in the sun can (my emphasis again) cause climate changes.” And again, the survey asks for a quantifiable response.
Well, no scientist would deny that the sun CAN cause climate change, but it is in no way ethical to present that conditional statement (“the sun CAN cause climate change”) as a parallel to the definitive “global warming HAS reduced the amount of Arctic ice and snow cover.” It is equally questionable to imply that because the sun CAN cause changes in climate, it HAS caused the warming the warming recorded in the last two or three decades. And it surely must violate COMPAS's duty of care to put forth these two examples as alternative and mutually exclusive assumptions.
Similarly, the survey's next example - “It’s said that changes in the earth’s rotation can (my emphasis once more) cause climate changes” - is a scientific slam dunk. We know for a fact that changes in the earth's rotation can and do change the climate. We also are 90+ per cent certain that's NOT the issue right now.
Not surprisingly, the pollsters found that people who had been subjected to this kind of strategic misdirection in the past were more likely to be confused as to the cause of the climate changes currently occurring. The survey's ultimate conclusion - that politicians and the media are doing a bad job on this story - is hard to argue. But one reason the media is falling down is that self-interested parties are funding think tanks like the FCPP to muddy the waters.
It's a shame that COMPAS didn't publish the entire poll as administered, because then we could confirm or deny this last point. In what appears to have been the final question, COMPAS asked whether people believe “Global warming and/or climate change is taking place and they are caused by human actions.”
Only 62 per cent said yes, a much smaller majority than is commonly reported in other polls these days. If this truly was the last question, then a skeptical critic (me, for instance) might reasonably liken it to a push-poll. In the preceding questions, the subjects were fed carefully worded alternatives that some will have accepted as legitimate statements of fact. This, quite naturally, would have engendered a greater degree of doubt, which was then borne out in what APPEARS to be a culminating question.
The whole exercise looks like it was conceived by the FCPP to build a case against politicians and media outlets who are trying, in good faith, to talk about the science and tune out the distracting, confusing and sometimes flagrantly dishonest nonsense coming from industry-funded “think” tanks.
But the real effect of this poll will likely be to undermine public faith in pollsters, as well as reporters and politicians.