A new national poll finds:

  • “A clear majority of Australian electors oppose the Gillard Government’s plan to introduce a carbon tax, 37% support the proposed carbon tax and 10% can’t say.”
  • “A majority (64%) believes that Australia’s proposed carbon tax will make no difference to the world’s climate.”
Political scientist James Fishkin, in his landmark book When The People Speak, writes: “Consider some of the limitations of mass opinion as we routinely find it in modern developed societies.” and then lists four problems with polls of the above sort:
  1. Citizens are ill-informed; indeed they are “rationally ignorant” because, being just one of millions, any individual’s opinion is likely to have so little effect that it makes no sense to put in the effort of becoming well-informed.
  2. “Opinions” reported in polls are frequently not genuine opinions at all; when people are forced to answer a question on a topic they know little or nothing about, they “choose an option, virtually at random.”
  3. When people do try to form an opinion on a topic, they tend to talk mostly with people just like themselves, thereby, frequently, just reinforcing their ill-informed and prejudiced views.
  4. Mass public opinion is vulnerable to manipulation.

So when you get stupid answers like the ones delivered in the poll, its because you’ve asked stupid questions. Or rather, you’ve asked questions stupidly. There’s nothing intrinsically stupid about a question like “Do you support the Gillard government’s plan to introduce a carbon tax?”  Rather, what’s stupid is the asking.  It is the whole practice of opinion polling as a mechanism for identifying the public’s viewpoint on important matters.

There must be better ways.

Fishkin has devoted much of his career to developing and promoting an alternative: deliberative polling.

We’re working on another.

Update, 5 July:

For an illuminating discussion see Australians and climate change – beliefs about public belief may be quite wrong and Polls, framings and public understandings: climate change and opinion polls by Joseph Reser.