The Problem With Polls

10/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the 2008 U.S. Presidential election season plods along, it's only natural to reflect upon how critically polling shapes the direction of government.

It's quite acceptable that polling should be used to better understand what the public is thinking. However, we're in trouble when polling is used as a primary basis for setting direction or policy.

These concerns are especially salient in regards to energy and environmental matters, in which the average citizen is badly lacking in basic understanding of the key issues. A review of energy-related polling from the past couple years is instructive.

For instance, last year, Deloitte conducted a survey of American consumers on alternative energy, and the press release notes "a growing willingness among electricity consumers to pay higher costs to use fuels that are less damaging to the environment."

However, the renewables critic Prof. Robert Michaels from California State University Fullerton, in his column in New Power Executive, offered an opposing interpretation of the Deloitte poll results: that the indicated support of the average electricity customer for alternative energy is actually rather lukewarm when reviewed in detail.

Moreover, Michaels pointed 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 brought up the highly inconvenient truth that I'm bringing up today: Americans are incredibly poorly informed about energy. Michaels refers to a 2007 survey conducted 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 trotted out a 2004 survey from Kentucky in which 41% of respondents identified coal, steel and oil as renewables. Yikes!

The best statement concerning American dimness on critical energy issues may have been made by the blogger Engineer-Poet who posted the following missive on Alternative Energy Blog about three 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."

That little ditty says it all.

Now the key question: do we really want the government following the wishes of the masses on energy, if this is what the public wants or thinks it knows? If such ignorance forms the political calculus for setting the direction of the U.S. on vital matters like energy and environmental policies, then it's impossible to be optimistic about where we're headed.

I'm an economist, not a political scientist or philosopher, so I don't have a good answer on how best to govern a huge and populous country in a time of incredible change. But, the current over-reliance on polling cannot possibly be the best way forward.

It's appalling that policy-makers often propose policies to pander to the public's no-sacrifices-for-me fantasies, and I deeply rue that politicans make unreasonable pledges to win elections. In the realm of energy and environment, this dynamic is killing us, and unchecked may lead to our doom.

Facing the profound challenges of the 21st Century, we need courageous and committed leaders with vision and spine -- telling people what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear -- in order to inspire the U.S. and the world down a path towards saner energy policies that better support the triple objectives of geopolitical stability, environmental improvement and economic growth.

In the energy and environmental realm, polling results should not be used as the basis for setting our country's direction. Rather, the only valid use of energy-related polls is to understand how the public needs to become better educated and informed on some of the most vital issues and topics of our time.