Public Policy Forum Blog

The Orwellian world of public opinion

Advocacy groups, no matter what they advocate, often provide survey research that isn't very useful. That rule of thumb is evident in a recent report that Wisconsinites overwhelmingly oppose universal health insurance. This may be the case, but the finding that City of Milwaukee residents are opposed 86% to 8% sent me to seek the source of the survey.

According to the web site of the sponsoring organization, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, this was the question posed to survey respondents:


Do you think the best way to reform health care in Wisconsin is by replacing the current private health insurance system with a new universal health insurance system that is run by the Wisconsin state government? ~ or ~ Do you think the best way to reform the current private health care system is to cut costs and provide more choices by increasing competition among private insurance companies and by requiring health care providers to publicly release their actual costs?

Let’s count some of the ways the question begs respondents to choose the second option:

  1. Cut costs – The question presumes the second idea would cut costs whereas a universal health insurance system wouldn’t. That’s an opinion.

  2. Choices -- Everybody likes choice; that’s why abortion advocates call themselves pro-choice, that’s why the school voucher program is called school choice, and that’s why the survey designers used the word in their preferred response.

  3. Competition – It’s the American way. Wouldn’t there be competition in a universal plan? Maybe yes, maybe no, but survey researchers usually let the respondents be the ones offering the opinions.

  4. Accountability (“requiring health care providers to publicly release their actual costs") -- Would there be accountability under a universal plan? Maybe there would, maybe not, but if you want my opinion, let me offer it.

To appreciate the bias, imagine the findings with different wording:


Do you think the best way to reform health care in Wisconsin is by replacing the current private health insurance system with a new universal health insurance system that would cut costs, provide more choices, increase competition and hold health care providers accountable? – or -- Do you think the best way to reform the current private health care system is to trust private insurance companies and health care providers to reform themselves?

Neither wording provides true insight into public attitudes, which raises a question: If surveys like this aren’t useful, why do them? If the intent is to mislead policymakers about the views of the electorate, that’s anti-democratic.

So why should we care if an organization wants to spend money on useless surveys? Well, we all pay a price for propaganda posing as research if it sways policymakers. One example: Milwaukee’s school choice program (for which Wisconsinites have spent more than $600 million since the late 1980s) began with public opinion research designed to create the impression that people wanted it. At the time, maybe people did want it. Maybe not. We'll never know.

Author: 
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