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This is an excerpt from a chapter to appear in a volume edited by Margaret Simons on “new media entrepreneurs”. 

What is the bare minimum a citizen needs to know in order to have a reasonable, informed opinion on a major public issue? This is not a trick question. Boiled down to the basics, a citizen needs to know what the issue is, the basic facts, and the key arguments for and against.

Consider negative gearing of real estate investments. Perhaps you think it is wise economic policy, or perhaps you think it an expensive rort. Either way, you really ought to know what negative gearing is (not everybody does.)  You should know critical facts such as how much it costs the government each year, who gets the benefits, and what other effects it might have, such as making rental housing more available and affordable. You’d need to be aware of the best arguments for keeping it on one hand, and the best arguments for abolishing it on the other.

Of course, having the bare minimum knowledge does not automatically lead to a reasonable opinion, and ideally a citizen would know much more than the bare minimum about the merits of negative gearing as one component of an efficient, equitable and sustainable taxation system.  My point is just that unless you have at least the bare minimum then your opinion is seriously ill-founded.

The trouble is, citizens often don’t have this kind of minimum knowledge. Choose an Australian adult and a major public issue at random and chances are that if they understand the issue at all they will be ignorant of key facts,  or misinformed and unaware of major arguments.

For example, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of negative gearing; indeed I’d even negatively geared the occasional investment. But when I sat down to draft a succinct summary of the pros and cons of negative gearing as a tax policy, I immediately discovered how incomplete and uncertain my knowledge was. It took the better part of a day of reading online, filtering, digesting, sorting and drafting to come up with a short written summary of what I needed to know. Only then did I really appreciate how half-baked my previous views had been.

Now, I will not rehearse here the reasons why this kind of ignorance is a problem for democracy. Nor will I heap blame on the usual suspects. Nor will I hand wave about how the schools, or the government, or the media, or someone should be doing something about it. Finally, I will not indulge any utopian fantasy of a fully informed citizenry.

Rather, I’ll make a simple suggestion.

It is not too hard for someone with suitable expertise to assemble the bare minimum information on a given issue in a short article with a fairly standard structure. You could call this a “backgrounder,” or an “explainer”. I like the phrase “issue clarifier”.

The suggestion is that for all major public issues, these clarifiers be produced and made easily accessible. Then, any interested citizen could rapidly obtain the most essential information on any issue whenever they wanted it. This alone wouldn’t solve the ignorance problem, but it would surely help.

An issue clarifier is a journalistic product. Writing issue clarifiers is a kind of journalism. Doing it well requires broad awareness of the political landscape, the ability to research, analyse and synthesize, and to write succinctly and clearly for a wide audience.  In our democratic system, we usually regard journalism as having a special responsibility for keeping the citizenry informed. Since issue clarifiers would obviously be useful in this regard, they should already be a mundane feature of the media landscape.

In short, my suggestion should be redundant. But it is not. Nowhere in the major media can you easily find such clarifiers. Very occasionally, something along these lines appears, but it is quickly lost under the torrents of news, the deluges of opinion, and the tsunamis of mass distraction such as sport, cooking, fashion, celebrity gossip, and so forth.

Why? Partly because issue clarifiers can be a bit  dull. They aren’t breaking news; they don’t exploit our appetite for the latest, freshest and most titillating.  Unlike opinion pieces, they don’t incite our tribal instincts. Being even-handed, they don’t comfort by stroking our prejudices, or enrage by challenging our convictions. The media survive by attracting attention, and issue clarifiers will generally struggle to compete.

It might also be argued that issue clarifiers are superfluous. The media already provide far more information and debate about major public issues than could ever be conveyed in a short issue clarifiers. Why add to this abundance?

It was once said that there are two ways to keep decision makers in the dark. One way is providing too little information; the other is providing too much. Similarly, the vast quantity of fast-changing news and vigorous debate in the media may actually be counterproductive, with respect to the goal of helping the public be basically well-informed on most major issues. Rather than educating, the net effect may be to bewilder and alienate; or to leave people under the illusion that they have much better knowledge than they do.

This can be seen as a market failure. There’s an obvious public good, the provision of issue clarifiers, not being addressed by “business as usual” in the Australian media. So, following the adage that a problem is merely a situation which has not yet been turned to your advantage, there is also here an opportunity. Can a new media player t this empty niche?

This is one way of looking at the YourView project…

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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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A new draft of What Do We Think?  Divining the Public Wisdom to Guide Sustainability Decisions is now available.

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What do we need?

If the transition to sustainability requires the public wisdom, and if we currently have no practical and effective mechanism for ascertaining that wisdom, then we need to develop something better.

What would such a mechanism look like?  Here’s a wish list:

  • It would generate public wisdom in the fullest sense – i.e. the collective considered opinion based on large-scale deliberation.
  • It would be generating that wisdom on all major issues, including new issues as soon as they arise.
  • It would make that wisdom available to anyone at any time.
  • It would by inclusive in the sense of providing a practical opportunity for any interested citizen to participate, and would in fact involve participation of numerous and diverse members of the public.
  • It would be politically neutral and completely independent of control by government, corporates or any other powerful interest group.

A National Virtual Forum

Surveying the wish list, it is obvious that any mechanism capable of delivering the goods would have to be internet-based. It would have to be, in other words, a kind of national virtual forum (NVF).

No such forum exists today.  The good news however is that a NVF plausibly could exist.   As everyone knows, the internet hosts innumerable forums already; many are focused on serious social, economic and political issues, and support deliberation that is often of surprisingly high quality.  While it is de rigueur to sneer at the quality of online discussion, and indeed much of it is rubbish, we should at the same time acknowledge that every day literally thousands of Australians jump online and vigorously debate the major issues of the day.

Further, and more profoundly, there is the fact that internet-based environments or systems have been proven capable of synthesizing collective intelligence or wisdom of various kinds.  Wikipedia, prediction markets, Amazon.com, and Stack Overflow are all well known examples.  To be sure, none of these generate collective rational consensus of the kind expected from the NVF.  How exactly that form of collective intelligence will be assembled or extracted is a major design challenge.  But important precedents do exist, and they do more than just prove that collective intelligence can be generated: they provide a wealth of insights and hints for the development of a NVF.

Challenges

A NVF would clearly face numerous major obstacles.  In my view, these are best regarded as challenges to be overcome rather than fatal objections to the whole exercise.   Here are four, with brief hints as to how they might be tackled.

  1. Critical Mass.  The NVF will have to attract many and diverse participants.  To do this, first and foremost the NVF must be easily accessible – simple to use and available via any major channel (website, mobile apps, etc.).  It must be thoroughly and effectively integrated with social media (Twitter, etc.).   “Gamification” techniques will help deepen participants’ engagement.  Finally, a major media alliance will situate the NVF in the public’s attention (similar to, say, the Oursay cooperation with The Age).
  2. Representativeness.  For its outputs to count as the wisdom of the public as a whole, the participants would need to be sufficiently similar to the public – i.e., to statistically represent the public.  On the face of it, this will be a problem if the NVF has an open-door approach, allowing its participants to self-select.  Despite this various strategies can be used to approximate and enhance representativeness, approaching full representativeness as a kind of limit case.  For example, assuming there are demographics on participants of a known degree of reliability, and a sufficiently large and diverse set of participants, it would be possible to select suitable subsets of participants to form the pool for the purposes of computing group wisdom.
  3. Gaming.  If it builds any kind of momentum, the NVF will become a target for “gaming” (e.g. astroturfing) as groups attempt to manipulate the outputs to suit their own interests.  This problem can never by fully solved, but could be handled adequately.  The problem of distinguishing genuine from bogus participation is similar to the problem of distinguishing genuine email from spam, and Google has shown that this can be done remarkably well.
  4. Credibility/Influence.  The main point of setting up the NVF is to help governments make the best decisions.  For this to work, governments would have to take the NVF outputs seriously.  I’m optimistic that this problem would start to solve itself just insofar as the NVF achieves critical mass and delivers its intended output – not because governments will be virtuous and do the right thing but rather because they will inevitably start to respond out of pure pragmatic political self-interest.  If the genuine considered opinion of the public on a major issue is available, and if it diverges significantly from the public attitude as expressed in the polls, then it will constitute another kind of political cudgel which can be used by either the government or the opposition.

Conclusion – Now is the time to start

Clearly, establishing a NVF of the kind described would be no mean feat.  Yet as I’ve argued, we need such a thing if we’re to make a smooth, timely transition to sustainability.

It is high time we had practical and effective mechanisms for knowing what the public really thinks on the major issues affecting it.   The ubiquity and sophistication of the internet and the systems built upon it provide us the opportunity to realise this democratic ideal.

The NVF proper will not be built in a day or even a year.  Rather, it will evolve in a serious of stages, incrementally approaching the full vision.

Eight years (from here to 2020) is probably a reasonable time-frame within which something worthwhile could be achieved.  Remember that Twitter is less than eight years old, and has already played a key role in democratic movements worldwide (e.g. North Africa).


This post is the third part of a draft chapter What Do We Think? Identifying the Public Wisdom to Guide Sustainability Decisions, in preparation for the volume 20/20 Vision for a Sustainable Society, being put together by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

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One of the main points of this chapter is that to make the transition to sustainability in a safe and timely manner we need to identify the public wisdom on sustainability issues.

Why?

First, because it will help governments to make the decisions we need them to make. The public wisdom can give the government the kind of “mandate” or authority it needs to tackle divisive issues and make tough decisions, even when doing so may be going against the tide of public opinion as measured by the polls.

Knowing the public wisdom on the matter may also help swing public opinion.

This potential benefit was behind Julia Gillard’s recommendation, in the 2010 election campaign, that a 150-person Citizen’s Assembly be convened to develop some rational consensus around climate change policy.  She apparently believed that identifying the considered opinon of the public on the issue would help break the political impasse.  The proposal had some intrinsic merit but was, as Lyn Carson has described, ridiculed from many directions, with such rejection driven by many different agendas and misunderstandings.   One lesson of this episode is that we need institutions and mechanisms capable of articulating the collective wisdom without requiring any support or approval from the powers that be (see below).

Second, because on many issues, the public wisdom would be best guide to the truth of the matter.  If we’re serious about making the right decision, then we must find out what the public really thinks.

Consider an issue like whether we should have more large dams to better manage scarce water resources.   This simple-sounding question sits on top of a complex web of issues, involving not just factual and technical matters but diverse competing interests and conflicting values.  Certainly many individual experts and interest groups are highly knowledgeable about particular aspects, and their input should be given due consideration.  However such folks always have a particular perspective; they see only their part of the larger elephant.  The wider the involvement – the more diverse and comprehensive the selection of participants – the more chance that all the relevant information can be brought to the decision, and the relevant interests and values recognised and accommodated.

Note that I’m not claiming that the public’s considered opinion is the best guide on any complex matter.  Many issues clearly are matters of specialist expertise, and the general public is in no position assess the merits of different theories.  An obvious example is the science of climate change.  Only the body of climate scientists has the knowledge and competence to settle the scientific issues.  Neither laypeople individually nor the public as a whole have any business trying to make up their own minds on this topic.

However on major sustainability issues there are no individuals or special groups in a uniquely privileged position to discern the truth.  These decisions are matters of interests and values as much as they are matters of knowledge or expertise, and the Australian people are the relevant authorities on what their interests and values are.

But we don’t know what the public wisdom is

The problem with the public wisdom is that we almost never know what it is.  That is, on any given major issue, we don’t know what the collective considered opinion is.  Indeed, that wisdom usually doesn’t even exist, in the sense that nothing has been done to put it together.

We do have many windows onto public opinion, but they’re all either ineffective (don’t deliver public wisdom) or impractical (too cumbersome and expensive).

For example standard opinion polls, for reasons described above, don’t tell us what the public wisdom is.

Well-designed surveys are a step up from standard opinion polls (Reser).  However, these surveys provide little opportunity for the respondents to engage in any sustained reflection, individually or collectively.   They are just more sensitive ways of identifying the attitudes people happen to have.  Ideally, such surveys would play a much larger role than they currently do in the gauging of public opinion.   However they can’t identify the public wisdom, in the sense described above.

Deliberative polling, and why it is not enough

By far the best mechanism we currently have for ascertaining the public wisdom is deliberative polling.  It is summarised on the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy website as follows:

A random, representative sample is first polled on the targeted issues. After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.

Over the past few decades, dozens of deliberative polls have been conducted around the world.  In Australia has had a handful, on topics such as republicanism and reconciliation.

Australia would benefit greatly if deliberative polls were held much more often, and if their results were more influential in major decisions.

However, deliberative polling, in its standard form at least, can’t meet the need to deliver the collective wisdom for the purpose of guiding timely decision making on major sustainability issues.

The critical problem is that deliberative poll is a cumbersome exercise and is costly to stage.  This has a number of consequences:

  • There aren’t enough of them.  The large cost is one major reason there have been so few deliberative polls since the idea was first propounded over two decades ago.  It may be that the frequency of deliberative polls is increasing, which is a surely a good thing, but deliberative polling currently and for the foreseeable future can address only a fraction of the issues which properly ought to be guided by public wisdom.
  • They take a long time to set up.  It can take six months or more to set up and run a deliberative poll.  The time from conception – the moment when it is recognised that having a DP on a certain topic would desirable – is far longer.  And of course most deliberative polls that have been conceived simply haven’t been run (yet).
  • Once run, they’re finished.  The public wisdom identified in the deliberative poll is frozen in time.   It becomes outdated and irrelevant as circumstances and information change.

The latter two points may not be such a problem for relatively timeless issues such as whether Australia should become a republic, but they constitute a severe drawback when decisions need to be made quickly on issues which are heavily shaped by circumstances arising at a particular moment in history.

For example, should Australia adopt the Gillard governments carbon pricing scheme?  This is not the general issue of e.g. whether Australia should take action on climate change, and whether it should institute an emissions trading scheme.  Rather it is whether a particular plan should be adopted at a particular historical juncture.  The debate is raging as this is being written, and ideally we would be able to divine the collective wisdom right now.   A deliberative poll on the topic would be great, but it isn’t happening, and practically speaking couldn’t happen for many months.  By the time a deliberative poll was staged, it may well be too late.

A more philosophical quibble with deliberative polling is that, as standardly conducted, it doesn’t deliver public wisdom in the fullest sense.   The primary output of the deliberative poll is the poll results – i.e. a tabulation of individual opinions.  Granted, these individual opinions have become more considered through quality deliberation, and are thus worthy of more respect than the attitudes tapped by standard opinion polls.  However there has been no deeper aggregation of individual judgement into a coherent collective viewpoint.   It is as if the IPCC reports were to consist of an exit poll of climate scientists’ beliefs, rather than a carefully drafted and agreed statement.


This post is the second part of a draft chapter What Do We Think? Identifying the Public Wisdom to Guide Sustainability Decisions, in preparation for the volume 20/20 Vision for a Sustainable Society, being put together by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

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Australia is patently unsustainable in many ways, and so will have to change.  Will this change be wisely and pro-actively managed?  Or will it be forced on us in unwelcome, disruptive and possibly catastrophic ways?

Wise management will require governments at all levels to make lots of difficult decisions, and to make them expeditiously.

In this decision making, public opinion is a critical constraint.

For example, there is a good case for road use pricing to manage our unsustainable dependence on use of private vehicles.  Yet this option is instantly dismissed by both major political parties, fearing a public backlash – no matter how ill-informed, short-sighted or self-serving that public reaction may be.  Meanwhile our cities become increasingly gridlocked, with escalating economic, health and environmental costs.

Simply put, unless we can improve the relationship between government decision making and public opinion, we’re going to “hit the wall” in numerous respects.

Of course, the importance of public opinion has hardly been lost on sustainability advocates.  There has already been, and continues to be, lots of good work in this area – particularly as regards climate change.  Considerable insight has been gained on topics such as how opinions are formed, how they are related to behavior, and how they can be influenced.

As part of this effort, we must also develop better ways to find out what the public opinion is, i.e. what the public actually thinks.

But what’s the problem?  Don’t we already know pretty much what the public thinks, from the endless stream of opinion polls? And isn’t the problem in fact that there is too much monitoring of public opinion, and that governments are too sensitive to it?

Its true that public opinion, in the standard sense – what might be called the public attitude – is in oversupply.

What we almost never know is the considered opinion of the public – the public wisdom.

Public attitude versus public wisdom

Public opinion, as we usually understand it, is the kind of information generated by the familar polls run by organisations such as Morgan and Gallup and delivered as fodder to the mainstream media.

The public wisdom, by contrast, is the collective, considered opinion of the public.  It is what the public as a whole would think if it were able to think seriously about the matter, i.e. become well-informed, reflect carefully, and somehow pool their thoughts into a coherent position.  Thinking seriously in this way requires collective deliberation, i.e. constructive discussion and debate.

Public opinion falls a long way short of public wisdom.  In his book When The People Speak, notable theorist of democracy James Fishkin has pointed to a number of problems with public opinion:

  • Respondents are generally ill-informed; indeed they will usually be rationally ignorant on the topic.
  • Individuals’ attitudes are subject to manipulation by powerful forces pursuing their own agendas, e.g. major corporates resisting progressive tax reforms.
  • The opinions elicited in standard polls may be artificially manufactured by the polling process itself, i.e. may not reflect any real attitude held by the respondents but rather are generated on the spot in response to the polling process and are shaped by that process.

To which I would add: the respondents will generally not have engaged in any serious deliberation (on their own, or with others) on the issue, and the polling process provides no opportunity for such deliberation.

In short, standard opinion polls give us a distorted snapshot of the attitudes the respondents happen to have at that moment – not a fair reflection of what they (would) think about the issue.

To compound matters, standard polling processes do nothing more than tabulate individual opinions.  They don’t synthesize or aggregate the viewpoints of the respondents into a common or collective position, as would be required for genuine “wisdom of the crowd.”

For an example of genuine collective wisdom, consider the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).  These are generated by means of an elaborate process, involving much high-quality deliberation, in which exceptionally well-informed scientists pool and refine their knowledge, coming up with an agreed expression of what their community as a whole believes.


This post is the first part of a draft chapter What Do We Think? Identifying the Public Wisdom to Guide Sustainability Decisions, in preparation for the volume 20/20 Vision for a Sustainable Society, being put together by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute.

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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.

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