Beware the 'don't know' brigade

Don't know

In his regular Go Figure column, Michael Blastland looks at why the people ignored by surveys could be those with the strongest opinions of all.

I'd like you to complete the following questionnaire.

Do surveys of opinion ask sensible questions?

a. Yes

b. No

c. Don't know

d. No Answer

Do surveys of opinion allow sensible answers?

a. Yes

b. No

c. Don't know

d. No Answer

Which answers are most instructive about public opinion?

a. Yes or No

b. Don't Know

c. No Answer

Start Quote

Michael Blastland

But when an issue is real, specific and maybe here and now, the don't knows and don't cares can quickly change”

End Quote Michael Blastland

Only asking. After all, people are asked what they think about all sorts of things. Is climate change unstoppable? Are tax rises are a good idea? Does extra-terrestrial life exist? Should we build more roads?

I don't know about you, but quite often there seems to me only one sensible answer the questions posed in these attempts to canvass opinion: I don't know.

But that's not really what I mean. What I really mean is: "it depends". And for that reason, I might not answer.

Yet the standard way for pollsters to treat people like me is to ignore them.

"Excluding don't-knows and no answers" say the reports, before telling us that most of us think we should or shouldn't do this or that. It's as if the "don't knows" haven't been paying attention while the "no answers" don't care.

Strip out the apathetic and the ignorant and see what's left, they seem to say.

But isn't it at least arguable that we've thought about it and decided uncertainty is the best response?

Tax rises? When, for who, how much, for how long, for what purpose? Maybe, maybe not. It depends.

Ricky Gervais dressed as alien Believe in aliens?

Climate change unstoppable? Now where did I put my crystal ball and my vast science library?

Alien life-forms? Unless you've bumped into one lately, withholding judgement seems reasonable enough.

Maarten Hajer, an academic, says that apart from holding reasonable doubts, many people are "citizens on standby". They don't show up in surveys, but they are "people with many political skills... who are not necessarily interested in employing them".

That passivity can change in an instant. Those who "[show] up in surveys as 'not interested in politics', they can transform overnight into activists".

The "don't cares" and "don't knows" may appear meek and mild in the abstract conditions of a survey. But when an issue is real, specific and maybe here and now, they can quickly change to "do care" and "do know".

In short, it depends. But as to whether these people are apathetic or ignorant? They may be. They may be anything but. And if you want to know what might turn citizens on standby into active citizens with strong opinions… ask the don't knows.

Switch that light off

From time to time, Go Figure promises to show smart ways of seeing numbers. If you've somehow missed it elsewhere, the DECC 2050 energy calculator is worth looking up. There are 134 options for you to play with to change the way we provide and consume energy in the UK: how much land we use for bio energy, how many nuclear power stations we have, what each option does to greenhouse gases and so on. It's worth watching the video first to see how the calculator works. It's all accessible from the 2050 Calculator Tool website


For me, it's equally interesting about the potential for technology to help public argument when it involves quantifiable options: let people play with those options, see the consequences as best we understand them - immediately - and come to their own conclusions.

Here's a screen grab showing just a few of the options. And if you are tempted to have a closer look, here's a little challenge for you: see how much difference you can make to projected UK energy demand by changing people's behaviour.

Whether you believe climate change is real, man-made or not, you might well find this a clever way of encouraging people to engage with the policy problems of energy supply and consumption.

A selection of your comments appears below

I have always felt that this was the case. I go out of my way to avoid people with clipboards because my answer is almost always "It depends". I don mean to questions like "what is your gender" or "Are you married", but almost any other question needs to be expanded. I think the idea of "Citizens on Standby" really does sum it up. Thanks for this.

David Sparrow, Eton Wick, UK

More to the point *who* is being asked? I'm 40 and I've *never* been stopped by someone conducting a survey, so from my perspective they're hardly representative. Also with phone-in polls, who on earth is spending money to phone in and say 'Don't Know'??

Julian Hall, Barry

We are all ignorant about some things. Ignorance and apathy should not be assumed to be related.

Helen Ap-Rhisiart, Clynder, Scotland

Mark Twain - got this right: "I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know."

Simon, Stroud

Don't know

Don't know, Don't know

I was once asked by a pollster what brand of oil I had in my car engine. "I don't know", I replied (the oil's changed when the car's serviced). The pollster said "Lots of people say that, but I haven't got a box for that on my replies sheet, so I'll pretend I didn't ask you." I'd have thought that oil companies would be very interested to know that lots of people have no idea what sort of oil they have in their car.

John Bradford, Hatfield, England

I am consistently surprised by the inherent bias in surveys. Generally I refuse to do them because they fail to capture what I actually think. Recently, when interacting with a push-button telephony system of a major insurance provider, I broke my rule and agreed to participate. I was then phoned back by an automated system and presented with a push button survey. The point I wished to make was that I would not buy insurance this way. Needless to say, it was not possible to express this opinion as a push-button response. In marketing it's what you don't know about your non-customers that matters the most.

Michael Hobbs, London

Interesting question. I think in many ways - these surveys have mushroomed in the last 25-30 years as an alternative to decisive & experienced leadership. If you can turn around and say "our survey said" - then you can't be blamed can you? Consequently many people I believe answer these polls and surveys "don't know" because they probably believe someone, somewhere - who is responsible for (and paid to do) something properly - should have the spleen and brains to do it.

Richard, Reading

Most surveys are too long. 5 mins is just too long for our short attention spans. If the data was collected in short feedback bursts that were specific to what you were doing people would be more willing to provide it. Look at Ebay feedback for example.

Dom Finn, Nottingham

Politicians are not allowed to say 'I don't know' - and look at the trouble that causes!

Francis Hayden, Frome, UK

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