June 21, 2010
Stanford University’s Jon A Krosnick, a communications guru and advisor to the global warming camp, scored a coup in a New York Times oped last week that discredits polls by firms such as Gallup and Pew Research Center. The highly cited oped, entitled “The Climate Majority,” claims that these pollsters and others have it backwards and that “huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it.” For example, Krosnick’s own poll shows, “When respondents were asked if they thought that the earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74% answered affirmatively. And 75% of respondents said that human behaviour was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred.”
Krosnick, an expert in questionnaire design, produces studies geared to explaining why people answer the way they do, and how to get them to answer differently. One recent paper dealt entirely with one of the biggest embarrassments to the global warming camp, Gallup’s classic “Most Important Problem” question: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?”
When public opinion pollsters ask the public this question or variants of it, global warming invariably comes in dead last. Sometimes the surveys find that not one person answers “global warming.” To get a better result, Krosnick lumped “global warming” in with “the environment” and didn’t limit the question to the U.S., asking “What do you think is the most important problem facing the world today? 7% then answered “Global warming/the environment.”
Krosnick then found he could double that result by shifting the problem away from today, with the following question: “What do you think will be the most important problem facing the world in the future?”
The best question of all, Krosnick found, came from adding an assumption of pessimism:” What do you think will be the most serious problem facing the world in the future if nothing is done to stop it?” When put this way, 25% of the public responded with “Global warming/the environment.” Krosnick doesn’t tell us how many of that 25% choose global warming versus the myriad of other environmental issues, such as air pollution, food and drinking water safety, wildlife and species protection, farmland or woodlands protection.
Krosnick recommends that pollsters ask his 25% question, believing it will obtain a result more useful for policy makers. He also chastises the press for interviewing global warming sceptics along with global warming advocates, saying this creates in the public mind the impression that the science is not settled on global warming. 6% of articles on global warming last year included the views of sceptics, a percentage Krosnick evidently views as too high.
Krosnick gets different results than other pollsters do by asking questions that some might consider bizarre. For example, when people told him that they didn’t believe global warming was happening, he asked them to pretend they did by asking them, “Assuming that global warming is happening, do you think a rise in the world’s temperature would be caused mostly by things people do, mostly by natural causes, or about equally by things people do and by natural causes? He then lumped the pretend response from people who don’t believe in global warming with a similar question asked of people who weren’t pretending about their belief in global warming. The result of the merger of these two groups was: 30% blame global warming on humans, 25% blame global warming on natural causes, and 45% believe humans and natural causes are about equally to blame. In the New York Times oped, Krosnick summarized this finding by pretenders and believers as “75% of respondents said that human behaviour was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred,” even though many of those 75% didn’t believe that global warming was happening at all.
To see some of Krosnick’s questions, albeit in an odd format, click here (Krosnick did not release the full report to public scrutiny; neither did he show the public the context for his questions).
What do the major polling firms think of Krosnick’s work? Not much. Here’s a response from the President of Pew Research:
“Mr. Krosnick posits that his question is more legitimate than others. It is but one approach and hardly ideal. The question’s preamble is ‘you may have heard about the idea that the world’s temperature may have been going up slowly’ and then asks whether this is ‘probably’ happening. Such wordings often encourage a positive response: this is known in the polling world as acquiescence bias.
“There are many different questions about climate change, none of them perfect, but almost all, except Mr. Krosnick’s, show a significant decline in belief in climate change. Pew Research not only found fewer in 2009 seeing solid evidence of global warming, but also fewer calling it a very serious problem and fewer naming warming a top priority for the president and Congress.
“Mr. Krosnick unfairly faults Gallup for asking whether climate change has been exaggerated, saying that it taps into views of media coverage. But Fox’s rather direct question — “Do you believe global warming exists?” — shows the same trend: a 19 percentage point decline in belief in global warming between 2007 and 2009.
“And while Mr. Krosnick cites ABC News/Washington Post survey results as similar to his, he doesn’t note that this poll also found a 12 percentage point decline in the number saying global warming is occurring.
“Far from being definitive, Mr. Krosnick’s finding is but one indicator and an outlier at that.”
And here is Gallup’s conclusion: “Mr. Krosnick’s article gave the impression … of an attempt to dismiss certain survey trend results because they did not fit his overall thesis.”
The media-savvy Krosnick, of course, knows all this without advice from Pew and Gallup. As he also knows, a winning communication strategy and an accurate one are entirely separate things.