Drilling for Oil

A few days ago I wrote a post about The Opinion Makers: An Insider Reveals the Truth Behind the Polls, a new book by David Moore, a former Vice President of the Gallup Organization and Managing Editor of the Gallup Poll. We talk about polls a lot in the blogosphere, so I thought it would be interesting to invite David to guest blog about his book this week. You can read more about the book here, and of course the book itself is available via Amazon and other online booksellers. David’s first post is below, and he’ll be around all week writing about poll issues and answering your questions.

DRILLING FOR OIL….One reason we can’t trust most media polls is that they don’t differentiate between “those who express deeply held views and those who have hardly, if at all, thought about an issue.” That quotation comes from the book’s announcement, and it caused Kevin to write:

This is disturbing. Either Moore managed to find a publisher for a book thesis about as obvious as “college students like to drink,” or else Moore’s thesis actually isn’t as bog obvious as I think it is. I’m not sure which is worse. Or there’s a third option: his thesis really is as obvious as I think it is, but everyone keeps pretending not to know it anyway.

Like Kevin, I believe that in their heart of hearts, most political observers know that polls measure superficial opinions. Still, when the poll results are presented, it’s hard to dismiss what appear to be “scientific” measures of the public will.

Last week, for example, Paul Krugman cited with dismay a CNN poll showing 69 percent of Americans in favor of expanded offshore oil drilling. An article in The New Yorker cited similar poll results, as did pundits on several television news shows.

CNN was not alone. CBS, Fox, and the Los Angeles Times all showed similar or greater support for offshore oil drilling. It appears that this general consensus about public opinion has even persuaded Barack Obama to modify his opposition to offshore oil drilling.

But does the public really support more offshore oil drilling? Clearly the public wants the government to do something about the energy problem, and when presented with an isolated proposal — with no mention made of either possible environmental trade-offs or of the long time it might take for expanded oil drilling to actually produce more oil — the proposal sounds good. But that doesn’t mean people are not willing to consider trade-offs or other approaches.

Most of the polls frame the issue as though it were a problem of “energy independence” or of dealing with the “rising cost of gasoline.” But the energy problem is much more complicated.

A couple of polls addressed the energy issue a bit differently, and they found a more ambivalent public. Pew Research, for example, asked which of two approaches should receive higher priority: “expanding exploration, mining and drilling and the construction of new power plants, OR, more energy conservation and regulation on energy use and prices?” Instead of overwhelming support for more oil drilling, the public was evenly divided between that approach and conservation (47 percent to 45 percent respectively).

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll offered five different approaches to dealing with the energy problems. Almost half (46 percent) opted for energy conservation and more emphasis on wind and solar, while 40 percent chose offshore oil drilling and drilling in protected areas in Alaska, while 10 percent preferred nuclear power.

And the CNN poll actually measured intensity of opinion, by asking if people “strongly” or “mildly” favored, or “strongly” or “mildly” opposed increased offshore oil drilling. The results found 46 percent “strongly” in favor, with 18 percent “strongly” opposed. More than a third, 35 percent, held only “mild” opinions. (In all discussions of the CNN results, however, there was no mention of the “mild” and “strong” opinions. The two groups were combined according to favor and oppose, which is typical of the way poll results are treated.)

Despite conventional wisdom these days that the public overwhelmingly supports expanded offshore oil drilling, some careful poll results reveal a more complicated public opinion. If all the pollsters were willing to explore the uncertainty of public opinion, they would find a large segment of the public that genuinely doesn’t know the best strategy for the energy problems this country faces. Instead, the polls give the erroneous impression that the vast majority of Americans have a clear opinion — with zero percent undecided, according to CNN, and no more than 10 percent according to other polls. And that opinion favors expanded offshore oil drilling.

Do you believe them? I don’t.

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