Thursday, January 22, 2009

Words, numbers, they really matter

[I have returned from the coast, about which I'll have more to say later, though posting will be light as I catch up and regroup.]

Kevin Drum has a post, Public Cool on Warming, in which he asserts that a Pew poll on the nation's priorities is "grim news for those of us who think we're rapidly destroying our planet: the public couldn't care less." There is a list of 20 issues, and people were asked if they thought each was a "top priority"; global warming was cited by only 30%, the least of any of the 20, and Drum finds this worrisome.

And I suppose it is, in a way, but this kind of survey is so fraught with problems that I find it hard to work up quite as much indignation. The greatest problem, I think, is the question about "a" top priority, which, apparently, leaves it up to the person polled to determine how many things are "top."

Predictably, the two largest numbers on the list (you can read more here) are the economy and jobs, at 85% and 82% respectively. (Read farther down in the link for the actual statement that was surveyed; Drum's recreation of the graph states, for example, "Military." The actual question was, "Strengthening the military," which is important to know.)

For my part, I'm quite concerned about climate change, but I'm not sure I'd call it a "top" priority right now, except in the way that I could consider all 20 as "top" priorities. That's because I don't believe we can make a whole lot of progress on climate change without getting our economic house in order. Imposing a carbon tax or whatever other scheme is in vogue this week will impose costs on society, particularly on those who are already struggling, and that kind of remedy is going to be a tough sell until we see the stock market going up and unemployment going down.

And it's pretty easy to see the problem with some quick math. 13 of the 20 categories have been collected since January 2001 (actually, a couple fell off in 2003 for some reason, but they were back the next year). The average percentage garnered by those 13 in 2001 was 64%, in 2009 54%.

If we take the spirit of the reporting, that these are, as Drum puts it, "important domestic priorities," the averages would indicate that people believe there are fewer things to worry about now than they did in 2001. Of course, that's nonsensical, other surveys are pretty much unanimous that Americans are considerably more concerned about life and the future than they were last year at this time.

That's the problem, that crises tend to focus the mind and make people reconsider what they think of as "top." The average in 2002 was 52%, even lower than currently, and people were certainly concerned about issues in the wake of 9/11: it's just that other issues paled in comparison to security and terrorism.

And that's what's happening today, as the economy has everyone focusing on it, and global warming or global trade or immigration simply don't match up. So take this latest Pew survey with a grain of salt, and realize that deriving specific conclusions from it is hugely problematic.

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