HomePolitical leadershipThe problem with polling

The problem with polling

When politicians want to know what the public think, more often than not they turn to the polls.

Whatever the question – from which professionals are most trusted, to whether we care about climate change – there’s likely to be a survey with an answer.

These opinion polls are statistically significant, carefully weighted…and best taken with a pinch of salt.

Why? Because people’s answers are heavily dependent on how the question is asked – the ideas and language that are used, and the context that is given.

This was more obvious than usual in an opinion poll published last month about children’s attitudes to nature.

Watching TV vs saving the world
The poll, commissioned by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), asked 10,000 5–18 year-olds to rank what was most important to them. They were asked to choose between a range of options, which included ‘watching TV and playing computers games’ and ‘saving the environment’. Unsurprisingly ten times as many chose the former than the latter. The CBD used this as evidence of the “alarming” attitude to nature displayed by today’s youth.

But is this really a fair question? Watching TV and playing computer games is something a lot of children enjoy and are very familiar with, since in the UK they spend an average of 3 hours per day doing exactly that.

‘Saving the environment’ on the other hand is an extremely abstract concept, something they are unlikely to relate to, and is not likely to evoke any emotions. In social science terms, “saving the environment” is simply not a salient (relevant) idea for these children. It also does nothing to hint that this child’s future may be bound up with the fate of ‘the environment’. (For more reasons to never to utter the words ‘saving the environment’ read the linguist George Lakoff’s contribution to our report From hot air to happy endings).

Charismatic animals
Had the ‘I care about nature’ option been expressed in a more concrete, relevant and imaginable way, more children may have chosen it. Indeed “protecting animals” got twice as many votes as “saving the environment”.

But changing the point of comparison might have made an even bigger difference to the answers. Had the pollsters asked the children what they thought was more important, digging up more coal or saving the environment, I very much doubt they would have got 10-1 in favour of digging up coal. Of course this is not a totally neutral comparison either – there isn’t one.

Asking the right questions
But what does this mean for the polls that newly elected politicians might listen to?

It means that framing – i.e. the language, ideas, values and reference points pollsters use – influence people’s answers, and that politicians would be wise to treat opinion polls on climate change and the environment with some caution.

A survey that asked people to rank the importance of the environment compared to other issues such as health, jobs, and the cost of living, for example, would get very different results to a survey that asked about the importance of having a sustainable economy or better air quality, because they draw on totally different sets of values and ideas. But both could be used to speculate on public willingness to support measures to tackle climate change.

A recent Ipsos MORI poll showed that concern about climate change had declined slightly since 2005, with 71% of people now fairly or very concerned about climate change. But it also showed that public support for renewable energy remained much higher than for fossil fuel power.

Of all energy sources solar power was viewed most favourably (88% saw it as mainly or very favourable), followed by wind (82%). Gas was most favoured of the fossil fuels (56%) and coal came in at 36%. The question about energy sources is arguably more relevant to the development of a lower carbon economy, but the abstract question on concern about climate change gained most public attention.

The CBD’s poll doesn’t show that children don’t care very much about nature. It shows that the way questions are framed is crucial in shaping people’s answers. Politicians would be wise to remember this when trying to gauge the support of the electorate.

Posted by Sylvia Rowley at 6/28/2010 10:57 AM
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Sylvia was the editor of Green Alliance's blog from 2010 to April 2013. She is an assistant producer on Al Jazeera English's flagship environmental show, earthrise, and an award-winning print journalist who writes for publications including the Guardian, the Evening Standard and New Scientist. She was previously a policy adviser at Green Alliance.