Home > Commentary, Politics/Policy > Public Polling and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (A nerd two-fer!)

Public Polling and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (A nerd two-fer!)

On Twitter, Steve Silberman links to a new report showing that only 52% of Americans know that vaccines don’t cause autism. As another Twitterer points out, the veracity of online surveys is always tough to measure, since they tend to be self-selecting. But it raises another question for me, one I haven’t seen addressed very much: Does the very nature of polling people about empirical facts make them more likely to think that the topic is more subjective than it really is? That is, is there a Heisenberg effect in polling, whereby one cannot effectively measure public opinion without also shaping it?

A lot of noteworthy polls in the last few years fall into this category. The proven, incontrovertible facts about which the American public is regularly queried include whether anthropomorphic climate change is real and whether the President of the United States is a Muslim/Marxist/foreigner/take-your-pick. The so-called debate about autism fits more closely with the former subject than the latter, in that accepting the reality depends on at least a passing understanding of, and trust in, science. But all of these questions are about cold hard truths, not preferential matters like taxes or immigration policy.

Polling, however, is much more commonly deployed to gauge belief rather than knowledge. Is it possible that respondents make this association (polling = opinion) so easily, and so subtly, that when a question is posed to them in that format they naturally suspect the topic is a subjective one?

Of course, there are going to be hardcore true believers who need no such encouragement to cling to their conspiracy-addled worldviews. But many more people are bombarded by conflicting and disreputable information and unsure what to think. Could the very fact of continuing to ask whether humans cause climate change, or whether vaccines cause autism, introduce just enough doubt to grant the deniers broader acceptance than should be tolerable in an educated society?

I have no idea whether this is true or even plausible, but like I said it’s something I haven’t seen discussed, and I’d be curious to know if any studies have been done touching on it.

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