Conscious Motivated Reasoning: Will Steffen gets the result he always wanted

I can’t allow this to pass without comment. In fact, I think I’ll base a new annual Prize around it.

What do you do when a survey of the population gives you a result that you don’t like? Why, you delete the opinions of some of those people who disagree with you, and report the new results. Hey presto! Just what the doctor ordered.

Read, and weep:

The results of the poll on light rail, published in the Canberra Times on June 19 certainly made for interesting reading, but there is more in the numbers than meets the eye.

On the surface of it, the union poll of 1446 residents showed that only 38.8 per cent of Canberrans support light rail, while 46.3 per cent oppose it and 14.9 per cent are undecided.

Buried in the detail of that outcome is the most striking number in the poll  – only 15.8 per cent of intended Liberal voters support light rail, while for all of the other groups of intended voters (Labor, Greens, Others and Undecided) support for light rail varied between 42.0 and 63.5 per cent. That anomalously low level of support among intended Liberal voters immediately caught our attention and prompted us to do a reanalysis of the poll results.

In large complex, contentious issues (eg, climate change), support or opposition to actions of various types often varies between 40 and 60 per cent or sometimes 30 and 70 per cent in polls. These ranges normally apply across all political parties with support or opposition normally skewed somewhat along party lines, but often not excessively so.

The very low 15.9 per cent of intending Liberal voters who support light rail are indicative of an issue that has become excessively polarising along partisan political lines. Such a strong skew also has statistical implications for the poll itself, and can easily generate a misleading impression of what the poll numbers are actually showing. In particular, the overall result of weak support for light rail could be highly skewed by the view of intended Liberal voters, who make up slightly less than one-third of the total number of residents polled.

In our reanalysis, we used all the percentages reported in the Canberra Times article in terms of level of support for light rail according to intended voting patterns. We then removed the intended Liberal voters from the analysis, giving a total of 980 remaining respondents to the poll, comprising the categories Labor, Greens, Others and Undecided in terms of intended voting pattern. We applied to the Others and Undecided categories in the reanalysis the same fraction of support for light rail (42 per cent) that was reported for Undecided in the full poll.

The results of the reanalysis are given below.

  • Support light rail 51.9 per cent
  • Oppose light rail 33.2 per cent
  • Undecided 14.9 per cent

This gives a very different picture. Now a majority support light rail. In fact, for the more-than-two-thirds of Canberrans who are are [sic] not intending to vote for the Liberals, there is very strong support for light rail, a nearly 20 per cent lead over those who oppose it. 

No, this is not a joke. This actually happened. In a developed country. In the 21st century.

It wouldn’t surprise you, I suppose, to discover that one of the authors, Will Steffen, is an anthropogenic climate change alarmist. Yes, climate-change bedwetters, this is the sort of person from whom you’re getting your ‘science’.

New Prize? Let’s name it the ‘Will Steffen Prize for Motivated Reasoning’.


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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