The Problem With Polls

by Richard T. Stuebi

Recently, I’ve been working more closely with people who are active in setting and shaping policies, and it’s clear that they’re wired differently from me. As an economist, my first question in considering policy usually is: “What are the costs and benefits?”. The policy-wonks tend to first ask: “What do the polls say?”

When it comes to energy issues, it’s increasingly clear to me that an instinctual reliance by politicians and staffers on polling data is a dangerous thing. That’s because the average citizen/voter is so badly lacking in basic understanding of the key issues that the opinions of Joe/Jane Six-pack on energy/environmental matters, sadly but frankly, ought not to be given much weight.

That doesn’t seem to stop firms from conducting more and more surveys on energy topics, and from touting their fresh results to support their pet positions. For instance, Deloitte recently conducted a survey on alternative energy, and the generally pro-renewables press release claimed that “a majority of customers said they would pay more for clean energy because it is good for the environment”.

However, the frothing anti-renewables critic Robert Michaels, writing in the June 8 New Power Executive, offered an opposing interpretation of the Deloitte poll results: that the indicated support of the average customer is actually rather lukewarm when reviewed in detail.

Moreover, Michaels points out, rightly, that survey data often overstates customer enthusiasm for renewables, relative to what customers actually do decide to purchase when offered renewable energy.

And, Michaels brings up the inconvenient truth that I’m bringing up today: that Americans are clueless about energy. Michaels refers to a survey conducted earlier this year by Enviromedia Social Marketing, which reported in its press release that “more Americans have no idea what fuels their electricity than those who can name any particular source — either correctly or incorrectly.”

As an even more damning anecdotal piece of evidence, Michaels trots out a 2004 survey from Kentucky in which 41% of respondents identified coal, steel and oil as renewables. Yikes!

Do we really want the public sector following the wishes of the masses on energy, if this is what the public thinks it knows about energy?

I think the last word on the lunacy of polling Americans on critical energy issues must go to the blogger Engineer-Poet who posted the following missive on Alternative Energy Blog about two years ago in response to a Yale poll on environmental positions:

“92% considered dependence on imported oil to be serious or very serious. 89% considered the high price of gasoline to be serious or very serious. Only 19% supported a pollution fee on gasoline, and a mere 15% supported a general increase in the gasoline tax. It takes a lot of ignorance to hold such contradictory opinions.”

I think that little ditty says it all.

In general, I don’t know where I stand on the Jefferson-Hamilton spectrum, but I don’t think policy-makers ought to make policies just to appease and pacify the ignorant.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President at NextWave Energy, Inc.

3 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Dude, what is your problem. If the last fifty years of political history teach us anything, it is how to appease and pacify the ignorant. Beyond that, the ignorant need to be made to feel intuitively more discerning then any academic egghead with his 'book lawnin'. So have a pinch and a bud, play some snoopy dog and watch some girls going wild wid your kids.

  2. Neil Maguire
    Neil Maguire says:

    Great points. Energy policy, climate change and foreign oil dependence are topics for the top minds in our country. It takes a lot of research and intense debate to find solutions. Since 50% of the country can't name the capital of NY we should not be running policy on public surveys.

  3. William
    William says:

    As an economist, I'm sure you appreciate that the most effective way to "poll" people regarding what they would or would not pay for is a market. Unfortunately, the raw market has very rarely been stable enough to appease the masses (Cf. the United States during the 19th century). Now we're moving once again into an era where people have started asking their governments to alleviate the cost of living (via gasoline prices), with the erroneous assumption that our governments can do anything.The real problem with setting policy for energy is that anyone smart knows that we're tapped out, and any policy that reflects a pessimistic future will be a very difficult sell.Oil was a great century-long run of massive productivity, but Gewahr just peaked a couple of weeks ago. There's really nothing to replace oil – I'm sure you've done the math. It is inevitable that we will have a lifestyle change placed upon us, and any policy written now could only rearrange the proverbial deck chairs. This Titanic, however, won't sink, it'll just slow down.

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