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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

MSU Professor Says Daines Wildfire Survey Skewed With Bias

A wildfire survey on Senator Daines' website, October 31, 2017.
A wildfire survey on Senator Daines' website, October 31, 2017.

A survey posted by Republican Senator Steve Daines asks Montanans what they believe contributes most to catastrophic wildfires: mismanagement of federal forests, or global warming.

David Parker teaches his students about scientific polling and surveying. He says this survey from Daines, and other like it from across the political spectrum, are skewed with bias. David Parker joins us now from Bozeman.

During this summer's likely record setting fire season, Senator Daines regularly criticized poor federal management and litigation blocking timber harvests for increasing fire activity in the state.

However, the recent survey on the Daines' website, issued near the end of Montana’s fire season, is drawing some criticism from Montana State political science professor David Parker, who joins us now.

Corin Cates-Carney: So this survey on Senator Daines website, I'm looking at it now. The question is "Which do you believe most contributes to catastrophic wildfires in Montana." And the survey gives two options; the first mismanagement of federal forests, environmental groups and judges who blocked timber harvests. The second option is global warming, and below this there's a comment section.

David Parker: Well I hope he's not using that poll to guide him for anything because it's really not a scientific survey at all. As someone who teaches research methods to students here at Montana State, I'm really troubled by the fact that public officials and frankly a lot of people quote "use polls" in a way to not really meaningfully measure public opinion. That poll certainly doesn't do that at all. That's not the objective of it.

CCC: So you say these kind of surveys aren't really useful to collect good information, so why do you think that elected leaders put these kind of surveys out there?

DP: Well some people say they put these things on internet to get people to give their email addresses. The problem I have with it is it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, basically getting information to justify your preexisting position and then you want to put that information out there to further "justify your preexisting conditions," to get your constituency excited. That's problematic and not terribly useful, I would think especially if you really are looking at that and thinking that is meaningful.

CCC: So with that kind of context. Speaking specifically about the survey that Senator Daines has posted about wildfire in Montana, I guess how do you see the intent of the survey based on how the questions are phrased and the topic?

DP: Well, leading questions. That's a classic example where you're going to get people that are going to give you the answers that you want based upon their preexisting views.

CCC: Do these surveys like the one we're talking about with Senator Daines, do they de-legitimize other surveys that have more scientific basis?

DP: Absolutely. I mean, this is what's frustrating. You know this is the old adage, right, you can say anything you want with statistics. You can manipulate statistics any way you want to. Well that's not entirely true. You can do all kinds of things that are dishonest to create an answer from a survey that you want to do.

But if you actually want to approach this from a very rigorous, scientific way, that is actually going to give you a pretty accurate read on the opinion of a particular population. So what's frustrating is that these things are out here and they make it harder for those of us to do our jobs and actually trying to teach students about proper research methods. And yeah I think it does undermine what people think about polls. There's enough trouble, I think, for the polling industry given the fact that we had difficulty calling the Trump election. But there are very good scientific reasons why the polls were off in the 2016 election. We know that and we can adjust for it. But people then become just much more skeptical when they see this type of polling information floating around. "Oh well everyone is just manipulating data.: And that is troubling.

CCC: Are there particular kinds of topics that lend themselves to these kinds of political surveys?

DP: I wouldn't say that the topic drives this, what drives this more than anything else is your desire to frame the issue in a particular way to voters. So I would say with what the surveys are designed to do, is not only give you information that you want to hear, but frame the issue in a particular way for voters.

CCC: As we get closer to a statewide election next year, do you expect voters to see more of these surveys out there?

DP: Well they're out there all the time. I mean, you get them from the RNC and the DNC. They put these surveys out there for members. So these are not by reputable polling organizations at all. There are also efforts to do this in polling as well. That's not reputable is reputable. Those are push polls, and those are really designed to move opinion as opposed to actual measure opinion. So I think you'll see more of these out there in the upcoming election.

CCC: do you have any tips for how voters should identify legitimate surveys and participate in them?

DP: So number one, usually the surveys should indicate who was giving the survey. Number two, the questions should be balanced. What I mean by that, that generally should be two sided questions for complicated issues. They will very often give you an option to say either I don't know much about that or I haven't thought much about that, so it's actually going to pull out people who actually don't have opinions. You will also find that the questions are designed to not push you in one particular direction. Always question who sponsors the surveys as well. Is this for example, is the survey sponsored by an interest group that has a particular stake in the debate or is this a survey done by a polling firm that has a legitimate record that's interested in measuring public opinion as opposed to making you come to a conclusion based on information.

CCC: David Parker I really appreciate you taking the time.

DP: No problem.

CCC: A spokesperson for Senator Daines says the wildfire survey was issued near the end of September and the results are still coming in.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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