Thursday, May 7, 2015

Public Opinion

I don't trust any poll on complex public policy issues, because the answer entirely depends on framing. Indeed it's even worse than you might think. It's not a question of finding the public's "true beliefs," as there is no such thing. Trying to find true beliefs is like trying to nail jello to the wall. You can change opinion by simply asking a question. (Insert Heisenberg Uncertainty analogy here.) Thus if you asked people if they'd rather spend $4 million executing a killer or $2 million on life imprisonment, the simple reporting of the relative costs might sway people against the death penalty, as most now assume the death penalty is cheaper. They'd learn something merely by listening to the question, and that would affect their opinion.

If you say we should ask the most basic question possible, untainted by any information that might sway opinion, then you are asking for the most ignorant views of the public. Is that what you want---pure untainted ignorance?

-- Scott Sumner on Econlog