Cold Hard Wonk

No sentiment but politics

New Research Into Nil

Posted by JJ in Doubletake/Doubletalk (Monday November 13, 2006 at 10:30 pm)

Latest in the ongoing series of questionable poll results, this survey of Canadian attitudes towards privacy.

While it’s commendable to know that Canadians are concerned about mall kiosks demanding home addresses and drivers’ licenses with every $5 battery purchase, does anyone think we needed academic peer-review to ensure the justice of refusal to comply?

Surely they’re not suggesting that solving identifiable problems should wait until the general public knows what’s wrong? Do we have to wait for consensus to push for reforms, or is it a push for reforms that should be used to build consensus?

But the general uselessness of asking public opinion on fine-tuning policy hits a new height in this survey:

Nearly half of Canadians think that the laws enacted by the government aimed at protecting national security in the aftermath of 9/11 are intrusive. Close to 30 percent think that the laws are not intrusive. One-fifth are not sure.

In case you’re wondering, that one-fifth is roughly the proportion of honest people polled. If anyone believes that nearly half of Canadians are in the slightest degree aware of what laws are indicated (let alone their contents), they may safely be located either outside of that one-fifth, or in a special sub-category thereof — the honest optimists.

More to the point: what possible value is a narrowly-constructed policy refining survey which asks for opinions on subjects of which we can safely assume the respondents to be ignorant? It’s not a public opinion poll — it’s being used to discuss fine-tuning policy considerations. Considering the power of disinformation, modelling policy proposals on popular support isn’t just a case of putting the cart before the horse: it’s a case of jumping off the wagon.

The reason being that academics, unlike politicians, are free to conduct research and identify solutions without the complication of facing public rejection — that’s what tenure’s all about. As a result, research into how the public views its privacy is important; but to collect useful information (for policy design), it’s probably necessary to get information about things the public knows.

Gut response to political conditions isn’t particularly revealing of anything but political opportunity; and if academics voluntarily confine themselves by public opinion, their work will unquestionably suffer.

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