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Staff Column: A poll, is a poll, is a poll, well maybe

Sun Advocate publisher

On Oct. 6 we ran an article in the Sun Advocate concerning a poll that Dan Jones and Associates had conducted in late August and early September to see how Utahns felt about the wilderness designation of millions of acres of land in the state.

The article we ran was a press release from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. I ran it as a balance to the article it accompanied concerning the testimony of Carbon County Commissioner John Jones to a congressional committee concerning the Red Rocks bill which would designate over nine million acres of land in Utah as wilderness.

I got a few complaints about running the SUWA piece from those who oppose the Red Rocks bill, but that was to be expected. However, one complaint I got was not about us running the article, but about the poll behind the article. A local resident called me and asked me if I had seen the actual poll. I had not. He said I should look because what the poll showed by his estimation was not what the article said. He sent me a link to the poll and I had to agree to some extent.

Polls can be very misleading. The questions asked, how they are asked, and what people are asked about can make a difference in responses. Also percentages can be skewed by opening up vast possibilities of answers rather than confining the answers to a few.

I have no quibbles with how Dan Jones and Associates ran the poll; they are a reputable and very scientific company, or as scientific as you can get when you are dealing with people's opinions. Note that the poll we run on our website has a disclaimer on it about not being scientific but for interest only. That's because I know that our poll may not actually reflect the opinion of the community as a whole or is even representative of that opinion. And certainly since it is an internet poll, only those that use the internet respond to it.

But adding up the numbers in the SUWA poll doesn't come out the same as what they said in their article. The main question in the poll was "Of the 23 million acres of land managed by the BLM, how many acres (in millions) do you think should be designated for wilderness?"

The poll allowed the following answers: none, don't know, refuse (to answer) and then any number between one million and 23 million. That's one hell of a spread.

Now as I see the numbers, one to eight million acres were supported by 19 percent of the respondents while 14 percent said no land should be designated as wilderness at all. That totals 33 percent for any answer under eight million acres.

Nine million to a ridiculous 23 million (which would make every square foot of BLM land wilderness) totalled 50 percent. The press release said 60 percent supported nine million or above.

That's pretty far off when looking at percentages. I will give them the fact that the poll showed the majority of Utahns did want more than nine million acres, but also a whooping 19 percent didn't even know what to answer and one percent refused to answer the question.

The poll also compared itself to another poll done in 1999. Obviously, by the answers people gave, individuals are more aware of wilderness designation than they were 10 years ago. At that time 29 percent didn't know. And true, although in 1999 only 37 percent said they agreed with nine million or more acres of wilderness designation (compared to the recent 50 percent) you can also look at the poll a different way too. Twice as many people (14 percent) were opposed to any wilderness designation than answered that way a decade ago (seven percent).

A good poll may be a snapshot in time of what a group of people think, but the information from it can also be interpreted in various ways depending on how you want to look at it. With that, instead of measuring the publics opinion, one can also manipulate it as well.

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