Manipulative COMPAS poll bolsters skeptics' position

Wed, 2008-11-05 12:44Richard Littlemore
Richard Littlemore's picture

Manipulative COMPAS poll bolsters skeptics' position

A COMPAS poll (attached) sponsored by the neo-con Frontier Centre for Public Policy offers an embarrassing example of a survey that sacrifices the discovery of new information in favour of eliciting specific answers for later use in building a political case.

This poll appears to have been designed to promote the phony debate over whether human activity causes climate change - a debate long since settled in science, but still raging in the media.

The poll begins with this question:

Politicians talk about spending billions to fight carbon gases and also about higher taxes on gasoline and heating oil. How good a job have politicians done in providing evidence to justify their proposals?

In response, 66 per cent of the people said politicians were doing a “poor,” “very poor” or “bad job,” no great surprise when you realize that two weeks after this poll was conducted, the leading advocate of a federal carbon tax, Liberal leader Stephane Dion, led his party to the worst electoral showing in Liberal history. You would find a hard time finding a Canadian today who suggested that Dion had done a “good”, “very good” or “excellent job,”notwithstanding this polls results.

The second question was perhaps less predictable, but more manipulative. COMPAS offered two different scenarios after this setup:

Turning to the issue of debating climate change, global warming, and their causes, which of the following opinions is closest to you own?

Scenario one was:

The public has a right to more, fair and objective information from the media on the professional and scientific opinions of all sides in the debate.

… and it's a surprise that only 78 per cent of the people endorsed this motherhood statement.

Scenario two was:

The public needs no more information from the media on the opinions of all sides in the debate because car driving and other human activity are definitely the key climate problem.

Here's where we come off the rails. Any citizen who is engaged in this issue (and that SHOULD be every citizen) must want a full range of “fair and objective” information. But the FCPP (and apparently COMPAS) is clearly using this question to argue that we should also have to suffer a steady diet of the fraudulent pseudo-science peddled by industry-funded hacks like FCPP science advisor Tim Ball.

The COMPAS release states: “The overwhelming majority of Canadians calls on the media for more balance in its reporting.” The implication is that newspapers and TV stations should stop showing favouritism to real scientists and start giving equal time to people like Ball, who claim scientific credentials they don't have and who continue to make arguments that have been proven to be incorrect.

COMPAS and FCPP then wade deeper into this questionable debate.

In an either-or section, the survey sets out some alternative statements, but does so in a questionable and manipulative way. For example, the survey states: “”It’s said that global warming has reduced (my emphasis) the amount of Arctic ice and snow cover.” And it asks to what degree people think this is true.

Then COMPAS posited this as an alternative: “It’s said that changes in the sun can (my emphasis again) cause climate changes.” And again, the survey asks for a quantifiable response.

Well, no scientist would deny that the sun CAN cause climate change, but it is in no way ethical to present that conditional statement (“the sun CAN cause climate change”) as a parallel to the definitive “global warming HAS reduced the amount of Arctic ice and snow cover.” It is equally questionable to imply that because the sun CAN cause changes in climate, it HAS caused the warming the warming recorded in the last two or three decades. And it surely must violate COMPAS's duty of care to put forth these two examples as alternative and mutually exclusive assumptions.

Similarly, the survey's next example - “It’s said that changes in the earth’s rotation can (my emphasis once more) cause climate changes” - is a scientific slam dunk. We know for a fact that changes in the earth's rotation can and do change the climate. We also are 90+ per cent certain that's NOT the issue right now.

Not surprisingly, the pollsters found that people who had been subjected to this kind of strategic misdirection in the past were more likely to be confused as to the cause of the climate changes currently occurring. The survey's ultimate conclusion - that politicians and the media are doing a bad job on this story - is hard to argue. But one reason the media is falling down is that self-interested parties are funding think tanks like the FCPP to muddy the waters.

It's a shame that COMPAS didn't publish the entire poll as administered, because then we could confirm or deny this last point. In what appears to have been the final question, COMPAS asked whether people believe “Global warming and/or climate change is taking place and they are caused by human actions.”

Only 62 per cent said yes, a much smaller majority than is commonly reported in other polls these days. If this truly was the last question, then a skeptical critic (me, for instance) might reasonably liken it to a push-poll. In the preceding questions, the subjects were fed carefully worded alternatives that some will have accepted as legitimate statements of fact. This, quite naturally, would have engendered a greater degree of doubt, which was then borne out in what APPEARS to be a culminating question.

The whole exercise looks like it was conceived by the FCPP to build a case against politicians and media outlets who are trying, in good faith, to talk about the science and tune out the distracting, confusing and sometimes flagrantly dishonest nonsense coming from industry-funded “think” tanks.

But the real effect of this poll will likely be to undermine public faith in pollsters, as well as reporters and politicians.


To my knowledge, that poll received virtually no coverage in the Canadian mainstream media. This does show that the skeptics are having a harder time achieving coverage.

There's an interesting footnote to the Calgary Foundation's Science Education Fund that supported Friends of Science projects until the University of Calgary shut down Barry Cooper's conduit research account. It appears that this poll and other FCPP climate change projects may have been supported by the SEF. Read on ...

"In a statement released in April, 2007, the Foundation acknowledged that the University had returned an unspent SEF grant of $25,000 on September 10, 2007 "due to U of C investigation that found the funds supported a partisan viewpoint on climate change". [61] The same statement revealed that the Frontier Centre for Public Policy received a grant from the SEF on November 15 for 'support of science education.' Canwest reported that the FCPP wanted 'to produce a climate change video for children in schools'. [62] The SEF also had a balance of $132,178 as of March 31, 2008, according to the Foundation's 2007-8 Annual Report. [63] It is not yet known if those funds have been allocated for FCPP projects in 2008-9.

"FoS and FCPP have similar points of view on climate change. FoS scientific advisor Tim Ball is also an FCPP senior fellow, [64] while FoS advisor Madhav Khandekar produced the recent FCPP paper, 'Questioning the Global Warming Science: An annotated bibliography of recent peer-reviewed papers'. [65] FCPP President Peter Holle introduced guest speaker Patrick Michaels at FoS's fifth annual luncheon on May 2, 2008.[66]"


"EDMONTON - Only about one in three Alberta earth scientists and engineers believe the culprit behind climate change has been identified, a new poll reported today.

The expert jury is divided, with 26 per cent attributing global warming to human activity like burning fossil fuels and 27 per cent blaming other causes such as volcanoes, sunspots, earth crust movements and natural evolution of the planet."

Every countries acadamey of science, every major science organization, even the American Association of Petroleum Geologists. All have issued statements supporting the conclusions of the IPCC.

But Alberta has tar sands.

Why would that make a difference?

of those four factors have been shown repeatedly to NOT be the cause of the warming over the last 30 years.

But then I doubt many members of the Association of Professional Engineers, Geologists and Geophysicists of Alberta are climatologists, atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, biologists or are engaged in any way with actual study of climate change.

Many of these organization's governing bodies who make those endorsements do so without the support of rank and file scientists who do not support the politicalization of their science.

It's the same old false-dilemma "Teach the Controversy" argument the IDiots use -- either you include pseudoscientific views or you're stifling debate -- combined with a straw man mischaracterizing the "other" side. ("Car Driving" is a subset of transportation, which includes the much more emissions-intensive air travel. ALL transportation accounted for only 13.5% of all GHG emissions in 2006, compared to 24.6% from electricity generation and heat and 18.2% from land use change, according to the WRI. See my "homepage" link for a graphical summary.)

This is a classic "wedge"-framed question, as informed individuals may take issue with the strawman's error and switch to the reasonably-worded other option, which is interpreted by the pollster as tacit support for the weasels that sqeak through the loopholes in definitions (i.e. "All sides" = "our side"). With no third option (i.e. "The public deserves more information that has stood up to rigorous testing"), this places the respondent in a verbal trap.