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May. 4 2009 - 3:35 pm | 163 views | 3 recommendations | 4 comments

The Answer Is Blowin’ in the Wind

Mean surface temperature anomalies during the ...

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Or at least it’s shifting with the weather. When it comes to public-opinion polling data, that is.

If you’ve ever studied public opinion, you know that it’s more accurate to say that the public has “impulses” and “notions” about public-policy issues than it is to say that it has “positions” or “opinions” on most things. Most public-policy questions are pretty complex, and the average person doesn’t know much about them. And, for the most part, it’s fine that they don’t know anything — it’s not their job to solve these problems. They’re rationally ignorant, as the phrase goes.

But, what you might not realize is the extent to which many people are irrationally swayable. You’ve probably heard or seen that the wording of a poll question can change people’s responses to an astounding degree.

What you probably haven’t seen is this…

From a new study out of NYU: People’s opinions on global warming are determined by their local weather — as in, whether it’s been hot recently.

So, basically, if it’s been hot the week you’re surveyed, you’re significantly more likely to believe that global warming exists. In fact, the numbers are fairly elegant:

For each three degrees that local temperature rises above normal, Americans become one percentage point more likely to agree that there is ’solid evidence’ that the earth is getting warmer.

You can read the full paper here (PDF).

The effect is most prominent among low-education voters and those not strongly attached to a party identification (those who “lean” Republican or Democrat, as opposed to being solidly identified with those parties; self-identified Independents, on the other hand, tend to be high-information voters, but are attached to the idea of themselves as “independent thinkers”).

If someone has high education or is a committed partisan, on the other hand, the weather has little effect on their beliefs.

In these two charts, you can see which groups were most and least affected:

groupsboth1So, we now have a data-supported, political-scientific reason why those “Gore Effect” (different from the Al Gore’s Giant Fraggin’ Mansion Effect) stories hold people’s attention — aside from pure irony. It’s not just that it’s somewhat funny to see a blizzard hit Washington, D.C., the day Gore flies into town to talk about global warming; it’s that a significant amount of the public is actually forming its opinion (consciously or not) based on the weather day-to-day.

Bottom line: If you want to pass cap-and-trade legislation to deal with global warming, pray for a heat wave.


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  1. collapse expand

    And this in part explains why we get so little accomplished in this country, too much pandering to the middle has proven to be a recipe for stagnation in our political body. Fortunately at this very troubled time in our history we have a president who knows how to shape the polls and not shape himself according to the polls. It is in my opinion the primary reason Hillary lost the nomination battle, too much courting of the middle when the party was eager for a bold gesture and grand dream.

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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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