Flaws in opinion polls about science

If you’ve ever had the experience of trying to answer an opinion poll and wanting to scream in frustration because the questions are vague or cover too much ground, this is the study for you: Measuring risk/benefit perceptions of emerging technologies and their potential impact on communication of public opinion toward science published online in the journal Public Understanding of Science, Jan. 6, 2011. From the Jan. 13, 2011 news item on physorg.com,

A new study from North Carolina State University highlights a major flaw in attempting to use a single survey question to assess public opinion on science issues. Researchers found that people who say that risks posed by new science fields outweigh benefits often actually perceive more benefits than risks when asked more detailed questions.

We set out to determine whether we can accurately assess public opinion on complex science issues with one question, or if we need to break the issue down into questions on each of the issue’s constituent parts,” says Dr. Andrew Binder, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study. “We found that, to varying degrees, accuracy really depends on breaking it down into multiple questions for people.” [emphasis mine]

To assess the problematic nature of a single-question surveys, the researchers developed two surveys; one focused on nanotechnology and the other on biofuels. In each survey, respondents were asked an overarching question: do the risks associated with nanotechnology/biofuels outweigh the benefits; do the benefits outweigh the risks; or are the risks and benefits approximately the same? The researchers then asked survey participants a series of questions about specific risks and benefits associated with nanotechnology or biofuels.

Precisely! Your answer to questions like these tends to be informed by the situation. In other words, you might see a benefit outweighing a risk where self-cleaning windows are concerned but not where transgenic goats (e.g. goats with spider genes) are concerned. Both of these are nanotechnology oriented, the windows being an application and the spidery goats supplying milk that can be spun for nanotechnology applications.

The article is behind a paywall but you can find out more about the study at nanopublic, Dietram Scheufele’s blog (from his Jan. 14 2011 posting,  [note: I cannot link to directly to the post so you may need to scroll down or search for it by date],

Studies tapping public perceptions of the risks and benefits surrounding new technologies have long relied on a single-item measure asking respondents a variant of the following question: “Do the risks associated with technology x outweigh the benefits; do the benefits outweigh the risks; or are the risks and benefits approximately the same?” More recently, we raised concerns about this single item measure and suggested that — especially for nanotechnology — a more application-specific look at risk perceptions might be useful.

Dietram is one of the paper’s authors.

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