Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A (not so) skeptical public

Americans, it turns out, are not so skeptical of global warming as they are skeptical of poll questions.

Our findings might seem implausible in light of recent polls that purport to show that Americans are increasingly skeptical about the very existence of climate change. But in fact, those polls did not produce conflicting evidence at all.

Consider, for example, the most publicized question from a 2009 Pew Research Center poll: “From what you’ve read and heard, is there solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades, or not?” This question measured perceptions of scientific evidence that the respondent has read or heard about, not the respondents’ personal opinions about whether the earth has been warming. Someone who has had no exposure to scientific evidence or who perceives the evidence to be equivocal may nonetheless be convinced that the earth has been heating up by, say, the early blossoming of plants in his garden.

Or consider a widely publicized Gallup question: “Thinking about what is said in the news, in your view, is the seriousness of global warming generally exaggerated, generally correct or is it generally underestimated?” This question asked about respondents’ perceptions of the news, not the respondents’ perception of warming. A person who believes climate change has been happening might also feel that news media coverage of it has been exaggerated.

Questions in other polls that sought to tap respondents’ personal beliefs about the existence and causes of warming violated two of the cardinal rules of good survey question design: ask about only one thing at a time, and choose language that makes it easy for respondents to understand and answer each question.

Imagine being asked this, from a poll by CNN: “Which of the following statements comes closest to your view of global warming: Global warming is a proven fact and is mostly caused by emissions from cars and industrial facilities like power plants and factories; global warming is a proven fact and is mostly caused by natural changes that have nothing to do with emissions from cars and industrial facilities; or, global warming is a theory that has not yet been proven.”

Notice that the question didn’t even offer the opportunity for respondents to say they believe global warming is definitely not happening — not the sort of question that will provide the most valid measurements.

When surveys other than ours have asked simple and direct questions, they have produced results similar to ours. For example, in November, an ABC News/Washington Post survey found that 72 percent of respondents said the earth has been heating up, and a December poll by Ipsos/McClatchy found this proportion to be 70 percent.

This is important to keep in mind as Lindsay Graham is the latest Republican to pull the Lucy Act. It seems this could be a singular issue in which a large majority of Americans are in agreement. They believe it's happening, despite the billions spent to dishonestly create questions about the science and the efforts of non-climate scientist scientists to try to put scholarly glosses on bullshit, they believe it's probably caused by human activity, and they believe the federal government should act by using tax credits as incentives. Moreover, there is simply no reason for Senators of both parties to not do the right thing. There are Republicans in the Northeast whose states suffer from coal-burning plants in the Midwest, there are Republicans in the Southwest whose economies would benefit from non-carbon emitting power generation. And even a major catastrophe which, you'd think would spur action, simply hasn't. If anything, the Gulf spill has decreased bipartisan support for passing a bill (and, by the way, when do we stop calling this over 10,000 barrel a day rape a "spill?").

It's depressing. I'm not questioning Harry Reid's legislative priorities. The Recovery Act was an emergency, the Lilly Leadbetter Act was way overdue, and the Affordable Healthcare Act was, to coin a phrase, a Big Fucking Deal -- just to name a few of the big ticket items this Congress passed. But this could have topped off a truly remarkable legislative era and it seems to be dead on arrival.

We await Nate Silver's judgment of this, of course.

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