When the numbers lie

I used to do polling for a living.  A lot of people hate polling and pollsters, especially on the left.  I think they are fools.

Polling is one of our metrics.  A good poll will tell you whether you’re successful or not, and why.

But the same thing applies to a bad poll.  A bad poll misleads you.  It can tell you everything is okay when it’s not, like taking a sleeping pill to cover up cancer symptoms.   Been there, not good.

There was a story based on a poll like that spread across the front page of the Sun’s business section on Friday.

“Carbon tax finds plenty of green supporters in B.C.  We’re happy to pay a little more to help the planet, poll suggests” was the headline.

The whole story was a great big lie, a piece of ridiculous propoganda.

The headline was based on a question that didn’t even ask residents whether they support the carbon tax or whether they think it’s good for them or the environment.

Here’s what it did ask:  “Based on what you have seen, read, or heard do you feel the carbon tax and accompanying tax cuts have had positive or negative consequences for British Columbia”.

Only 33% answered “positive”.

How anyone could conclude what the Sun and the sponsor of the poll – the Pembina Institute – concluded is beyond reason.

There are three things wrong with the question:  the wording, its location and the response categories provided.  Add that up and you have the makings of a push poll that gives the pollster the answer they want.

First the question doesn’t ask whether respondents support the carbon tax or believe its been good for the environment.  So the story’s headline is false.

It asks whether the tax has had positive or negative effects on BC.  You can say it’s had positive effects and still oppose the tax and vice versa.  The question as it’s asked is almost meaningless.

The question also lumps in “accompanying tax cuts”, which is guaranteed to drive up the numbers.  It’s called salting the question.

Sun readers weren’t told this.  They also weren’t told that the question is asked after several questions about climate change, pumping up the positive numbers.  We call that a push poll.

Finally the pollster didn’t give people a chance to say “don’t know”.  The response categories were “positive, neutral or negative.” And Pembina spun that lumping the neutral answers in with the positive to get over 70% of respondents supporting the tax.  That’s just not supportable.

What I read from the result is this:  Only 33% of British Columbians think the Carbon Tax has been positive for BC, 27% believe it’s been negative and the rest, for one reason or the other can’t say.

Not the overwhelming endorsement the poll sponsors and the Sun portray.

To find out whether BCers support the Carbon tax the question should have been something like this:  “BC has a carbon tax on the sale of all fossil fuels. Do you support or oppose the tax?”

But they didn’t.  And here’s why I believe they didn’t.  Because they wouldn’t have got the result they wanted.   The tax, supporters admit, hasn’t reduced emissions a whit and it hits average people hard in the pocketbook.

On top of that the Carbon Tax pays for nothing practical to improve our environment.  It goes into general revenue, which this government would rather spend on a new roof on BC Place than a new transit line to the eastern burbs.

Why publish this rotten poll now?  To do the government’s dirty work for them – to pretend there’s support for the Carbon Tax on the day it’s due to increase.

Two decades ago BC’s environmental movement was a force to be reckoned with.  Now it’s ideologically splintered and tactically divided with significant elements supporting one of BC’s worst governments on the environment.  All because of a tax that doesn’t do a thing to reduce emissions because it’s set too low and has no practical application.

No wonder people are asking what happened.


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7 Responses to When the numbers lie

  1. trevor says:

    As always, great analysis. Should point out that revenue raised goes into general revenue, but that the revenue neutral commitment from BC Liberals meant tax cuts were a part of the package and indeed overall government revenue went down as a result of this scheme.

    It gets more complicated if the HST referendum fails, as the BC Liberals will be clawing back the corporate income tax cut to help offset the whopping big-ass hole they’ve proposed be blown in the provincial budget by reducing the HST to 10% from 12%. Of course business is very happy to suck up a temporary return to 2008 corporate income tax rates if it means a permanent shift of $2 billion in sales taxes from business to consumers.

    Ultimately, the carbon tax was and is a failure in terms of public policy – GHG emissions continue to mount. Politically it was a great success, disrupting the opposition in the 2009 election, and certain environmental organizations attracted significant american philanthropy by their involvement in promoting it.

  2. James King says:

    Well said Ian. In fact, if you look at the comment thread dragging its tail after a ‘Hook’ story at Tyee last week, you’ll see that one of the Pembina boys actually showed up to respond to critics of his poll…

    You might find the exchange interesting…..

  3. Gloria says:

    First we got the carbon tax. Then we got the “new” carbon tax. Now we have a “newer” carbon tax. When will we get the next, “newest” carbon tax? They were just tax grabs by Campbell. Harper and Campbell are supporting, the dirtiest energy in the world. The dirty Alberta tar sands. What a pair of hypocrite’s.

    Campbell never spoke a true word, in his life. He lied about the sale of the BCR, saying it was losing money. The C.N. is in a panic to get the burned bridge repaired in a hurry. C.N. says, there will be thirty trains a day running, on that track over the bridge. A no good for nothing railroad, running thirty trains a day?????

    I never know what to think of polls. I have seen some, that are in your face dead wrong. I never know, which pollster’s to trust. I would love a list, of the polls that are trustworthy.

  4. Maya says:

    Love this story Ian. Thanks for cutting through the crap!

  5. islandcynic says:

    Perhaps we need to have a discussion as to whether target taxation works. The reason being that so many people supported this tax because targeting something bad must be good. Right? Did high taxes on cigarettes actually help reduce the number of smokers? Or was it educating the public?
    I believe that the carbon tax is useless for the reason you state above, but the election was lost because most people will not give it this much thought, and accept it on the fact that pollution is bad so we have to pay for it. Whether it is effective or not doesn’t seem to matter.

  6. kootcoot says:

    “Carbon tax finds plenty of green supporters in B.C. We’re happy to pay a little more to help the planet, poll suggests”

    Thanks for this explanation Ian. I was perplexed to say the least when I read this headline, and probably just attributed it to the general dumbing down of society, especially in BC with its ongoing attack on public education and post secondary (other than for the elite) education. In the hinterlands where I live the carbon tax has NEVER been popular, even though most of us are environmentally concerned. But we have to use carbon based energy to move, we have no transit and it gets colder here in the winter than down in the Black Hole by the coast where all our money goes.

    Perhaps though your post helps answer the question of why “A lot of people hate polling and pollsters, especially on the left” and why they AREN’T fools. It is bad enough to be interrupted at dinner with some pollster on the phone, but to then have one’s responses manipulated and used to misrepresent your position, is a good reason in itself to hate polls and pollsters.

    The only poll that matters is the one on election day, and it itself matters less all the time as it too is manipulated by lying and participated in by fewer and fewer people. Then we get a result like the recent federal election where over 60% of the population that voted voted against the now majority holding king who actually only got less than a quarter of the eligible vote – what’s not to hate about the entire phony manipulated pretense of democracy? Meanwhile the banksters, fraudsters and gangsters posing as government carry on, until the pitchforks come out I guess………….

    Perhaps it is time to riot about something more important than rich guys playing hockey, like they do in Ireland, Greece and other more civilized jurisdictions than the banana republic of B.C.

  7. Rod Smelser says:

    Add my thanks to those of others. I did a tweet or two yesterday saying I didn’t see the result headlines claimed but got no traction.

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