Saturday, April 28, 2007

A closer look at recent polls

The recent polls I've been talking about paint a pretty consistent picture that the public believes global warming is real and a problem. I've looked at the poll results themselves and have a few comments.

The original questions and answers:
Washington Post/ABC News
Yale Center
NYTimes/CBS News

With its 83% saying global warming is a serious problem, one might think the Yale Center poll is an outlier. But the poll also asked some general belief questions and found that 58% of those surveyed also thought the world was literally created in 6 days like the Bible says. So they probably weren't just polling the Yale student body. I don't find that 58% discouraging. It shows that people with conservative religious beliefs aren't necessarily in the global warming denier camp. That's a good thing.

One of the more dispiriting results from the Post/ABC poll was the finding that 41% think global warming is caused by people while 42% think its equally between people and natural causes.
First look at the question itself:
Do you think a rise in the world's temperatures is being caused mostly by things people do, mostly by natural causes, or about equally by things people do and by natural causes?

It uses "a rise in the world's temperatures" instead of "global warming". Why is that? The Post said this was an attribution of "global warming". I think this question is confusingly worded. "A rise" over what time period?

The NYTimes came closest to asking an attribution question in question 49 of its poll:
49. Greenhouse gases are released when coal, oil and gasoline are burned by cars, utilities and factories. Which comes closest to your opinion: 1. The release of greenhouse gases is the most important factor causing global warming, or 2. The release of greenhouse gases is one factor among many causes of global warming, OR 3. The release of greenhouse gases is NOT a factor causing global warming at all.

The result was 21% most important and 63% one among many. They didn't throw in "natural causes" so we have no idea what is the "many" people might be thinking of.

The Post also reported that only 4 in 10 are "extremely" or "very" sure global warming is happening. They must be referring to question 8:
How sure are you that the world's temperature (has/hasn't) been going up - extremely sure, very sure, somewhat sure, or not sure at all?
But the result was actually 49% extremely or very sure which I would round up to 5 in 10. Is this bad news for those of us concerned with communicating the science? Simply asking the question may cause a non-scientist to waiver. This question was only asked of the 84% who already agreed that the temperature has been going up over the last 100 years (question 7). Should we be concerned that half the 84% aren't extremely or very sure?

Finally, there is the perception of scientific disagreement question:
Do you think most scientists agree with one another about whether or not global warming is happening, or do you think there is a lot of disagreement among scientists on this issue?
40% said most agree while 56% thought there was a lot of disagreement. I first thought that that was a bad result until I considered the rest of the poll and the other polls and came to this conclusion: Who cares what the public thinks of the scientific debate? They already think there's a problem and that something needs to be done. Isn't that what scientists who hope this problem gets solved want to see?

The last bit of depressing info from the Post/ABC poll is in question 3:
How much do you trust the things that scientists say about the environment - completely, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, or not at all?
The results are 5% completely, 27% a lot, 43% moderate amount, 19% little and 5% not at all. The Post reported this as "Americans' skeptical attitudes toward scientists". Well American's are skeptical on just about everything they see in the news so a lot depends on where/how they're hearing scientists "say" things. I wouldn't want scientists to be trusted completely. I agree that there is some work to be done to move people from the "moderate" to "a lot" column.

The blog Pro-Science also examines the Post poll in more detail.

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