Lies, Damned Lies, and Polls


Environmentalists love to trumpet polls showing that Americans think we should do more about the environment. But do those polls accurately reflect our priorities? A close look at one poll raises some doubts.

Last December, the Los Angeles Times telephoned 2,095 Americans and solicited their answers to 87 questions covering every facet of contemporary life. The Times's own coverage of the poll placed great emphasis on the fact that 62 percent of those polled answered yes to the question, "Are you in favor of protecting the environment even if that means some people will lose their jobs and the government will have to spend a great deal of money?" (Of course, the answers might have been different had the question been "Are you in favor of protecting the environment even if that means the government might raise taxes and you might lose your job?")

But the Times did not report other results that indicate that Americans aren't terribly concerned about the environment. For example, when respondents were later asked to select the two most urgent problems facing the country today, 59 percent selected crime as one of their answers. But only 15 percent selected the environment. (Fourteen percent cited unemployment, even though the unemployment rate is the lowest in almost two decades.) Overall, the environment finished fifth, well behind education, low morals, and government spending.

Again, when asked to select the two most urgent problems in their own community, the respondents put crime at the top of the list, 31 percent giving that as one of their answers. Only 13 percent said dirty air and water. This time the environment was tied for seventh with poor health. Lack of jobs, poor schools, the high cost of living, inadequate housing, and high taxes were all considered more pressing than the environment.

It seems then that when asked to consider only the environment, Americans say someone should do something to clean it up. But when asked to compare it to other problems, Americans seem to think the environment looks pretty good.