Timothy Devinney: What we really care about, and how to lift sustainability’s real appeal

Harrumph! “Sustainability” is a term devoid of any real meaning. What people basically want is to improve their lot and hopefully that of others too (as long as it isn’t personally detrimental to do so). Another problem with polling, especially on touchy-feely nonsense like the environment and sustainability is “contingent valuation” – what people say they would sacrifice for X is significantly different from what they are really willing to pay.

New polls frequently announce that a significant proportion of the population is concerned about an issue or willing to sacrifice for a cause, from environmental sustainability to Third World debt. These polls create the sense that there is a public mandate for action on these issues – one that businesses and governments need to follow. However, standard polls don’t accurately measure people’s true beliefs.

Polls fail for two reasons

First, many issues are subject to what’s called social response bias. Vague questions about an issue will generally elicit responses that reflect what the respondent believes is seen positively by society or the surveying organization.

Second, there is no cost to responding to a poll. Answering “I am concerned” forces no real cognitive choice on the individual. There is no consequence associated with the opinion.

Case in point: surveys always indicated that Australians were very concerned about the environment. But after the government proposed a carbon tax, support for this environmental issue quickly declined. Suddenly, people realised that their support had consequences.

The Conversation

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3 responses to “Timothy Devinney: What we really care about, and how to lift sustainability’s real appeal

  1. Hypostatisation.

  2. @gamecock: An excellent word, but more apropos of the situation regarding ‘climate modelling’.
    Some people (myself included) deliberately lie to pollsters, just to mess with them. Others opt out by hanging up the phone. The statisticians at the polling agencies have no way to characterize these demographics (by definition), and from reports I have seen this is typically about 1/3rd of the people solicited in the polls.
    This self-selection of the sample population invariably skews the results in unpredictable (and often unexpected) ways, and renders the hypothetical ‘margin of error’ a pure fantasy, born of statistical naïveté and wishful thinking.

  3. “@gamecock: An excellent word, but more apropos of the situation regarding ‘climate modelling’.”

    I disagree. Reification applies to modeling; hypostatisation applies to concepts like “sustainability.”

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