Essay co-authored with Paul Monk. Cross-posted on the YourView blog.
Over half of Australians are dismissive about global warming. That’s the apparent message from a survey on the ABC website, part of its “I can change your mind about climate” programming airing this evening (Thurs 26th April).
With over 20,000 responses, the survey appears to be unusually large and therefore to provide an excellent view into the Australian mindset.
Some might see these results as confirming that Australians are coming to their senses in rejecting the excesses of the “warmist” school.
Others might see the results as revealing the effects of a sustained campaign of disinformation and manipulation by powerful vested interests and their supporters.
They might also suspect that the poll has simply been gamed by the “denialist” crowd, jumping on and pushing their views in great disproportion to their real numbers.
Gaming the survey would actually have been quite easy. There seemed to be nothing to stop one person responding numerous times.
But more generally, online polls and surveys are of dubious merit, since their participants are generally self-selected and therefore unrepresentative of the population at large.
That’s why, when The Age runs an online poll, it says “Disclaimer: These polls are not scientific and reflect the opinion only of visitors who have chosen to participate.”
Translation: Results are basically worthless. For entertainment value only.
The ABC’s survey, for this reason, is seriously deficient as a perspective on what Australians really think about climate change. Indeed it is disturbing that the ABC doesn’t openly admit these shortcomings on the survey site.
The ABC survey does have one merit: it enables participants find out what category they belong to (Dismissive, Alarmist, etc.). Much like those “What kind of lover are you?” questionnaires found in popular magazines.
The deeper problem here is that uncovering what Australians genuinely think on matters of public moment is actually quite difficult. Considered as a large group, “the people” doesn’t have vocal chords and can’t speak its thoughts.
Consequently, specially designed processes are needed to elicit this thinking.
Opinion polls, of course, are one common approach. When properly conducted, they improve on mere online polls in that they at least canvass opinions from fairly representative samples.
But standard opinion polls have their own drawbacks. The randomly selected participants are typically relatively ill-informed about the issue and aren’t able, in the polling situation, to give the questions any serious thought. Further, the attitudes of the ill-informed are often easily manipulated by the rhetoric doing the rounds at the time of the poll.
At best, these polls provide a statistical snapshot of “off the top of the head” responses. They don’t ascertain the considered views individuals would have if they were better informed and able to reflect properly.
Much better are the kind of careful surveys conducted by psychologists, such as the 2010 Griffith Climate Survey by Joseph Reser and colleagues. These by design elicit more thoughtful responses and provide more nuanced insight into people’s perceptions.
That survey found that “less than six per cent of people surveyed were sceptical about climate change”. The stark difference between this finding and that of the ABC poll should give us pause.
However even the Griffith-type surveys are only aggregating what individuals come up with in the 30-60 minutes they spend answering the questions. They don’t provide the collective view, i.e. the view that we would develop as a group if we had the chance to think together about the issue, pooling our perspectives and debating them thoroughly.
The deliberative democracy movement, led in Australia by pioneers such as Lyn Carson and John Dryzek, has long been urging that in a genuine democracy, governments should be guided and constrained by this kind of considered collective view; and that it is best ascertained through a well-designed process in which representative groups of ordinary citizens – “mini-publics” – convene and engage in extended deliberation.
In recent decades, around the world, many such exercises have been conducted. They reliably show that the considered collective view differs from the results of ordinary opinion polls. They show that under the right circumstances, many people change their minds in informed ways.
Australian democracy would be much healthier if such exercises happened far more frequently and played a much more central role in serious political life.
However there is a prohibitive practical problem with the standard deliberative democracy approach: its exercises are costly and cumbersome, and so happen too infrequently.
One challenge for twenty-first century democratic politics is to design and implement better processes for identifying what we think, not about personalities or political intrigues but about major public issues.
Like the ABC survey, such processes will need to be easily and inexpensively implemented, which means they must be conducted online.
However, like deliberative democracy, they must also able to provide genuine insight into what Australians really think, i.e. the considered collective view.
Reconciling these two demands is far from easy, but the new era of social media is rapidly throwing open new opportunities.
Taking the broadest historical view, the new communication platforms may enable democracy to return, in some key respects, to its Athenian roots – and, indeed, improve on the Athenian model: something that modern representative democracy has always sought to do, but has managed only very imperfectly.
YourView, of course, is our foray into this space.
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