A while back I wrote about how public opinion data are informed in great part by how survey questions are framed. Nothing shocking there. I used the American public’s increasing support for offshore drilling as an example. It turned out that when poll questions offered a choice between drilling and more investment in alternative energy, alternative energy came out ahead—by a mile.

But lots of polls don’t give respondents a full range of options, or alternatively, only some of the research findings are reported, so it winds up looking like drilling is all they want (because that’s all anyone asked them about or that’s the “juicy” headline). The pitfall is that the rosy numbers for drilling can be cherry-picked by the “Drill, Baby, Drill” folks lurking at the gates of ANWR.

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  • I’m not implying we should throw out all the polling data we see. On the contrary; I find public opinion research fascinating and enlightening, and without it we’d cut out one avenue voters have to influence policy.

    Admittedly, cherry picking is hard to avoid. Naturally, you get one number that suits your fancy and you run with it as a clear policy mandate from the voting masses. But the risk is that you might be ignoring (willfully or not) a slew of competing or even contradictory polling data that call for different measures.

    I was reminded of these pitfalls of polling this week—incidentally in the context, yet again, of American opinion on offshore drilling.

    The New York Times headline reads: Americans Support Offshore Drilling, Even If Washington Wavers. The story reads:

    A Gallup poll taken immediately after the gulf spill showed that 50 percent of Americans supported offshore drilling while 46 percent opposed it. By March of this year, public support had risen to 60 percent versus 37 percent…The poll found that 49 percent of Americans favor opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil exploration, a step the Obama administration strongly opposes. That is the highest level of support for drilling in the Arctic refuge since Gallup first asked the question in 2002.

    Then comes the “money quote” from the fossil fuel industry:

    “Timing is everything,” said Jack N. Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, the industry’s most prominent lobbying group in Washington. “As the price of gasoline has increased, public attention has turned once again to the question of energy. When they hear their elected officials continue to resist development of American resources, they are appalled.”

    Okay. But what’s the rest of the story? This article and several reports on Gallup.com about their spring 2011 Environment survey findings emphasize trends that, granted, show environmental concern flagging in the face of concerns about fuel prices and the economy, but they downplay some other interesting (and possibly contradictory) findings. Take this tidbit from a Gallup article titled, In U.S., Expanding Energy Output Still Trumps Green Concerns:

    While Americans have grown more likely since 2007 to value U.S. production of fossil fuels as a national priority, they nevertheless see developing alternative energy sources as even more important. This is according to a new question included on the 2011 Environment poll that finds 66% of Americans choosing “development of alternative energy such as wind and solar power” as the preferred approach for addressing energy concerns, while 26% choose “production of more oil, gas, and coal supplies.”

    That’s what I’m talking about! Given a choice, we pick clean over dirty.

    But you hear, instead, that Americans favor drilling—yes, okay, but it looks to me like they aren’t crazy about fossil fuels either (see below). You hear that domestic energy output “trumps green concerns”—a claim I find hard to swallow given the findings examined as a whole rather than snippet by snippet. And, you hear that a “record-high 41 percent now think the United States should emphasize production of fossil fuels as the preferred solution to the nation’s energy problems.” Yes, it’s a record high, but, read on and you find there’s still a 48 percent plurality that continues to favor conservation.

    I get it. The trends are often more interesting (troubling, telling, etc.) than the numbers themselves—that’s the news story. But as another example of why this is only a partial snap-shot of real opinion, take the number about ANWR I quoted above (49 percent say they support drilling). It’s significant because it’s the highest level of support Gallup has recorded for drilling in ANWR since the question was first asked in 2002. Yikes. But you don’t necessarily hear the flip-side: that 45 percent still oppose going into ANWR.

    Another trend is significant as well. Gallup reports the widest margin in nearly 30 years in Americans’ prioritizing economic growth (54 percent) over environmental protection (36 percent). But, here again the question shapes the response. Pollsters—quite chronically—frame environmental protection strictly as a trade-off with economic growth where the two are basically mutually exclusive—when we know that the public actually sees no such trade-off when properly asked. Here are Gallup’s questions, verbatim:

    With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree: [ROTATED: protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth (or) economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent]?

    It looks like a set-up to me. And…

    With which one of these statements about the environment and energy production do you most agree—[ROTATED: protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of limiting the amount of energy supplies—such as oil, gas and coal—which the United States produces (or) development of U.S. energy supplies—such as oil, gas and coal—should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent]?

    Thankfully, the NYT does get to the rest of the story or at least part way there—but this information is buried deep in the article just as it seems to be sidelined in the reports coming from Gallup (my emphasis):

    And while the public appears to support exploiting domestic oil and gas resources, there is also skepticism about the economic and environmental costs of America’s continued reliance on oil. A New York Times/CBS News poll taken in March asked how important it was for the United States to develop an alternative to oil as a major source of energy. Fully 94 percent of respondents said it was very or somewhat important to do so.

    Ninety-four percent! Hot damn. That sounds like a policy mandate to me. So, why isn’t that part of the story’s lede? Call me a cherry-picker, but I think the real headline is that 94 percent of voters seem to think it’s time to get our economy unhitched from dirty fossil fuels.