When to push back at a poll? When it's a push poll

Jun 15 2011 - 10:51pm

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The caller said he just wanted my opinion, but it was soon apparent he really wanted me to hear a sales pitch from the natural gas industry.

I was getting what is known as a "push poll," which is not a poll. It's an advertisement.

The tip-off was the endless string of questions about "hydraulic fracturing," which is the method of mining natural gas by pumping water and chemicals into the ground to break up rocks.

The natural gas industry, of course, says hydraulic fracturing is as safe as mother's milk. Critics say it pollutes groundwater and leaks gas, and they have pictures of people with flaming kitchen taps to prove it.

The ultimate fracturing experiment was in Rifle, Colo., in 1973 with nuclear weapons. This produced radioactive natural gas. The industry felt the public might not appreciate radioactive cooking gas, so now they stick to water and chemicals.

I have no clue who's right, but the survey I got sounded as if it were written by a car salesman pushing hydraulic fracturing instead of Pontiacs. When the question is, "Do I like a practice that will guarantee thousands of jobs and years of prosperity," there's really no answer but "yes."

I was bombarded with that sort of question. When the guy asked, "If we told you your legislature has passed laws regulating hydraulic fracturing, would you feel better or worse about it?" I'd had enough.

I told him many of Utah's legislators get campaign donations from the natural gas industry, rendering their objectivity suspect, and hung up.

We're getting more and more push polls like this, in print and on the phone, from folks who don't care what you think. They have agendas.

In January, a Utah legislator asked me if I thought undocumented aliens should be required to learn English.

Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential run was derailed by a "poll" asking voters if people minded that McCain had fathered a black child. He and his wife had actually adopted the child.

Both situations appealed to emotion and stereotypes, the antithesis of scientific surveying.

Dr. Rob Reynolds, chairman of the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Weber State University, said good survey writing is complex. Anything that biases the questions or the responses is bad science. Bias can be very hard to recognize, so it is wise to ask who sent the survey.

The guy who called me didn't say who was paying him, but the endless string of "isn't hydraulic fracturing wonderful!" questions made it clear. Reynolds' favorite is one from Greenpeace he got a decade ago that is so bad he uses it in class.

"They wanted you to respond to the cute, cuddly animals," and loaded questions with trigger words. "When they talked about drift nets, they said 'one-mile-long monofilament monstrosity,' " which makes it clear how you are supposed to answer.

Dr. Leah Murray, who teaches political science at WSU, said we should cut some slack for our local politicians when they send out questionnaires.

"Push polls can be the result of incompetence much more often than malice," she said. "People have no idea how to write good poll questions, and they push by accident. Only the Karl Roves of the world do it for evil."

Either way, badly written polls are a waste of time. The results are not scientific because the survey was not.

So if, later this year, the natural gas industry claims "a recent survey shows Utahns favor hydraulic fracturing," you know where they got that result and how much it's worth.

Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. You can call him at 801-625-4232 or e-mail ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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