Magazine

Beware the 'don't know' brigade

  • 8 September 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Don't know

In his regular Go Figure column, Michael Blastland looks at why the people ignored by surveys could be those with the strongest opinions of all.

I'd like you to complete the following questionnaire.

Do surveys of opinion ask sensible questions?

a. Yes

b. No

c. Don't know

d. No Answer

Do surveys of opinion allow sensible answers?

a. Yes

b. No

c. Don't know

d. No Answer

Which answers are most instructive about public opinion?

a. Yes or No

b. Don't Know

c. No Answer

Only asking. After all, people are asked what they think about all sorts of things. Is climate change unstoppable? Are tax rises are a good idea? Does extra-terrestrial life exist? Should we build more roads?

I don't know about you, but quite often there seems to me only one sensible answer the questions posed in these attempts to canvass opinion: I don't know.

But that's not really what I mean. What I really mean is: "it depends". And for that reason, I might not answer.

Yet the standard way for pollsters to treat people like me is to ignore them.

"Excluding don't-knows and no answers" say the reports, before telling us that most of us think we should or shouldn't do this or that. It's as if the "don't knows" haven't been paying attention while the "no answers" don't care.

Strip out the apathetic and the ignorant and see what's left, they seem to say.

But isn't it at least arguable that we've thought about it and decided uncertainty is the best response?

Tax rises? When, for who, how much, for how long, for what purpose? Maybe, maybe not. It depends.

Image caption Believe in aliens?

Climate change unstoppable? Now where did I put my crystal ball and my vast science library?

Alien life-forms? Unless you've bumped into one lately, withholding judgement seems reasonable enough.

Maarten Hajer, an academic, says that apart from holding reasonable doubts, many people are "citizens on standby". They don't show up in surveys, but they are "people with many political skills... who are not necessarily interested in employing them".

That passivity can change in an instant. Those who "[show] up in surveys as 'not interested in politics', they can transform overnight into activists".

The "don't cares" and "don't knows" may appear meek and mild in the abstract conditions of a survey. But when an issue is real, specific and maybe here and now, they can quickly change to "do care" and "do know".

In short, it depends. But as to whether these people are apathetic or ignorant? They may be. They may be anything but. And if you want to know what might turn citizens on standby into active citizens with strong opinions… ask the don't knows.

Switch that light off

From time to time, Go Figure promises to show smart ways of seeing numbers. If you've somehow missed it elsewhere, the DECC 2050 energy calculator is worth looking up. There are 134 options for you to play with to change the way we provide and consume energy in the UK: how much land we use for bio energy, how many nuclear power stations we have, what each option does to greenhouse gases and so on. It's worth watching the video first to see how the calculator works. It's all accessible from the 2050 Calculator Tool website

For me, it's equally interesting about the potential for technology to help public argument when it involves quantifiable options: let people play with those options, see the consequences as best we understand them - immediately - and come to their own conclusions.

Here's a screen grab showing just a few of the options. And if you are tempted to have a closer look, here's a little challenge for you: see how much difference you can make to projected UK energy demand by changing people's behaviour.

Whether you believe climate change is real, man-made or not, you might well find this a clever way of encouraging people to engage with the policy problems of energy supply and consumption.

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