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King: Sticking to dangerous beliefs beyond fact

POSTED: May 6, 2014 1:00 a.m.

What do you know about opinion polls? We’re confronted with them every day. The polls say this, the polls say that, but unless you have taken a course in statistics, you probably don’t understand the finer points of opinion polling.

Well, neither do I, so when I read that the Associated Press had asked one of the world’s largest research companies, GfK, to quiz American adults about science and skepticism, it was time for some research.

The Times reported the AP poll results April 22 under the headline, “Poll: Big Bang, big question.” The “Big Bang” is scientific jargon for creation, and that brings Christian fundamentalists into the picture.

How the poll was conducted? What was the Associate Press was looking for? The small print under the Times’ chart read “Poll results are based on interviews March 20 to 24 with 1,012 U.S. adults.” According to the Census bureau, the U.S. population stands at almost 319 million people. How could a mere 1,012 individuals represent a random sampling?

This is how it words. GfK used something called KnowledgePanel, a large pool of respondents randomly gathered via phone or mail survey methods. It is used when Fortune 500 companies, universities, government and news agencies want to sample public opinion. GfK drew its sample from that.

OK, this explains why GfK trusted a little more than 1,000 individuals to represent a poplation of more than 318 million people.

The GfK poll asked KnowledgePanel respondents to report their degree of confidence in nine different scientific findings. For instance, are Americans convinced that smoking causes cancer? Apparently they are, 82 percent. At the other end of the list, to what degree do Americans accept the idea that the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang? Twenty-one percent.

The first five findings in the poll concerned present day experience and understanding: smoking, mental illness, DNA, antibiotics and childhood inoculations. The last three concerned the earth and its inhabitants: How confident is the respondent that all life on earth evolved through natural selection and how confident is he or she that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and the universe 13.8 billion years.

Remember, people were asked their degree of confidence in a statement. This is not the same as asking if they believed it. Once again we are using two different thought systems to debate a single subject.

Between the first five questions and the last three, people were asked for their degree of confidence in the following: “The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of manmade heat-trapping greenhouse gases.” Only 33 percent of those polled expressed confidence in that statement. Was this the information the AP was after?

But note, the poll jumped an unspoken gap between “confidence” which involves a thoughtful balancing of pros and cons, and “belief” which is an emotional response.

People were not asked if they believed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when it said the Earth is warming. They were asked if they had confidence in these findings, but one can’t have confidence in something when their religion tells them otherwise.

This is a big stumbling block. There’s probably no more important issue in the world today than climate change. The future of our race may depend on what we do in the next 20 years. Climatologists, oceanographers, geophysicists, botanists and agricultural economists all warn us the earth is in trouble.

However, before we can deal with the problem, people have to understand the degree of risk we face. This means people need to understand science. They need to understand statistical probability.

It’s not a matter of belief. It’s statistics. Ignoring climate change is playing a form of Russian Roulette.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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