Populus, Heathrow’s favourite pollster, are in trouble over their methods


By John Stewart

 Populus, Heathrow’s favourite pollster, are in trouble.  Their questionable methods have been exposed in a poll they did for the fracking industry. Thie poll published on Monday, carried out for UK Onshore Oil and Gas, was described by a polling expert as ‘one of the most misleading poll findings I’ve ever seen’.

And today the pressure on Populus has increased with the publication of a Government-funded survey which shows markedly different results to the Populus poll.  The Government survey found  that only 25% of people supported fracking compared to the Populus poll which claimed 57% support.

The headline in today’s Times gets to the heart of it: Public back fracking . . . depending on how you ask the question http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/environment/article4174476.ece …  Ben Webster, the Times environment editor, puts it like this in his article: “The questions about fracking in the two surveys were posed in very different ways. The survey commissioned byUK Onshore Oil and Gas (UKOOG) asked several questions aboutBritain’s need for investment and greater energy security before the key question on fracking.  The question included a long preamble explaining the “tiny fractures” involved and how shale gas could “heat theUK’s homes for over 100 years”.  The energy department survey included a brief explanation of fracking as “a process of pumping water at high pressure into shale”,then asked people to state their level of support for it”.

 Polling expert Leo Barasi wrote in Noise of the Crowd http://www.noiseofthecrowd.com/this-fracking-poll-finding-is-one-of-the-least-convincing-ive-ever-seen/  about the Populus poll: “Short of faking results or fiddling the weights or sample (which this poll doesn’t), there are two ways to get a poll to give the answers you want. You can ask a series of leading questions that get respondents thinking the way you want them to, then ask the question you’re really interested in. Or you can word the questions so respondents only see half the argument. This poll does both”.

Barasi says: “This isn’t an attempt to find out what the public think about fracking. It’s message testing. That’s what political candidates or businesses do before launching a campaign. They fire a load of messages at respondents to see how much support they could gain in a theoretical world where only their view is heard, and which arguments are most effective. It’s a useful technique for finding out how people might respond to your arguments.  But it’s not supposed to represent what people actually think now”.

The criticism of Populus has important implications for Heathrow.  The airport has consistent commissioned polls from Populus in an attempt to show support for a third runway is growing.

In May 2014 Heathrow Airport claimed, on the basis of a Populus poll,  that there was more support now for a 3rd runway than when it was proposed by the last Labour Government.  The poll claimed to show 48% were in favour of a third runway while 34% opposed.  http://www.populus.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Heathrow-Borough-Poll-March-2014.pdf

In an uncanny parallel with the fracking results, these Populus results were flatly contradicted by referenda and surveys carried out by Hillingdon, Richmond and Hounslow local authorities which found around 72% of residents opposed a 3rd runway: http://www.richmond.gov.uk/100000_say_no_to_heathrow_expansion

All the polls done by Populus for Heathrow must now be regarded with suspicion.  In December last year Heathrow claimed “people inWest London are more likely to vote for their MP if they support Heathrow expansion than if they oppose a third runway according to new research from independent polling company Populus”. http://mediacentre.heathrowairport.com/Press-releases/One-quarter-of-West-London-more-likely-to-vote-for-their-MP-if-they-back-Heathrow-expansion-77e.aspx .  This is in flat contradiction to what MPs are telling us they are hearing on the doorstep and reading in their mail.

Heathrow need now to publish not just the questions Populus are asking people but also the ‘spiel’ leading up to the questions.  Unless they can convince us all that they are not leading people to their chosen answer, their results can only be regarded as fiction rather than fact…..to be filed alongside this entertaining incident from Yes Minister http://youtu.be/G0ZZJXw4MTA 

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