Public opinion polls play a curious role in policy debate: Lots of people look at them and they get a fair amount of media attention, and then any number of people say the polls cannot be trusted, that the results reflect the biases of the people phrasing the questions. That may be the case with a recent poll regarding public attitudes on opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Professional pollsters who conduct independent polls, like many of those in the presidential campaign, generally seek to achieve neutrality in their questions. Their reputations are on the line with the validity of the results, after all. But that's not always the case when special interests hire one of these pollsters to query the public. The people working in those special-interest groups, be they environmental, oil industry or opposing sides in some other issue, can and do write poll questions that ooze a little slant, whether they know it or not.
That's certainly a possibility with a recent poll conducted by the reputable firm of Zogby International, which was hired by The Wilderness Society and several other groups opposed to oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The poll found that 55 percent of Americans opposed allowing oil drilling in the refuge.
The head of the pro-drilling group Arctic Power, which is funded by the state of Alaska, is correct when he warns that the results should be looked at critically. That's because ANWR has now become such an apple pie issue, one that can elicit an automatic, emotional response ''Lord, no! Don't drill in the last pristine place on Earth.'' Oddly, some people, according to Arctic Power's own, albeit dated, poll, don't even know where that ''last pristine place'' is located.
The questions asked in the environmental groups' poll apparently didn't get into specifics, like informing the poll subjects that only a portion of the refuge's coastal plain is at issue. Nor did the poll mention the limited size of the footprint that the oil industry would be allowed to work within. And there was no mention of safeguards against environmental damage.
Results from this poll might have been a bit different if those being asked the questions had been better informed about what's being proposed.
The results would have been different, too, if outside factors had been different even had the environmental groups' poll wording been retained. If the nation had been facing a sudden oil embargo like that of the mid-1970s, if people had been told they cannot drive their gas-guzzling Hummers or other lower-mileage vehicles, and if the price of gas had crossed the threshold of public tolerance which it so far hasn't it's a sure bet the poll results would have been different and tipped toward authorizing drilling in the refuge.
Members of Congress would do well to remember that fact when it comes time to vote, in the national interest, in favor of opening a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,
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