ACCCE's '72% of Opinion Leaders' Claim is Manipulative Bunk

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE) has been running an online advertisement at the Washington Post, The Hill and other web sites which makes the following claim: 72% of opinion leaders support coal electricity.

A closer look at this claim provides yet another example of how the coal and electricity industries that created ACCCE are manipulating Americans in their fight to keep polluting for free.

If you click on the "America's Power" advertisement, you're taken to this page, where the ACCCE claims "it's easy to see why 72 percent of American opinion leaders support the use of coal." On this page are four links that all go to the same press release describing the ACCCE study that produced this 72% number.

The Election Day 2008 press release makes a number of questionable claims. I requested a copy of the survey's methodology last week from ACCCE and received no response. One of the hired pollsters involved was more forthcoming with information, though not a copy of the methodology.

The claims all rest on the survey's definition, provided at the bottom of the press release, of "opinion leaders," aka "opinion elites."

These are defined as follows:

The poll interviewed 600 opinion elites nationwide. Elites are defined as adults with $80,000 or more in household income and a four-year college degree or more and a professional or managerial job title or a business owner and a high degree of involvement in politics and policy matters.

So how many people is that really?

According to the Census Bureau economic data, there were 116.8 million households in the U.S. in 2007 (the latest year for which there's complete data), of which only 34.1 million meet the income requirement described for an "opinion elite" above. That's just 29% of all households.

According to the Census Bureau educational attainment data, there are approximately 60.5 million people in the U.S. with at least a four-year college degree. That's just under 28% of the estimated population of the U.S. in 2007 that was at least 18 years old.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, if we take all occupations in management, legal, computers and mathematics, architecture and engineering, healthcare providers and technicians, and business and finance as individuals who might qualify as "opinion elites" by profession, that's a total of approximately 26.1 million people out of a total of approximately 253 million people employed in 2007. That's only about 10% of the workforce.

Finally, we'll have to make an educated guess about how someone was defined as having "a high degree of involvement in politics and policy matters."It's probably fair to say that the nation's 65,000 legislators and 15,000 lobbyists in 2007 qualified, but they are certainly not alone (and they're already counted in the workforce numbers just described). Pollster Thomas Riehle of RT Strategies, one of the two groups that produced this study for the ACCCE, says the 600 participants were selected from a group regularly used by his company. He says they represent about 7% of the population.

As you can see, there's a significant problem with this definition – it applies to such a small number of individuals in the U.S. that it's impossible to generalize the results.

So much for the available survey methodology notes – on to the survey's results.

accce-72The survey claims that the 72% represented "a significant increase over the past year and the highest level of support since the group began polling almost 10 years ago."

ACCCE didn't exist 10 years ago – it was founded in 2008. The polling companies are also less than 10 year old. RT Strategies was founded in 2005 by Riehle and Lance Tarrance, and American Public.us was founded in 2004 by Mark Allen, described by ACCCE as a former member of the Bush-Cheney polling team.

Riehle said the same polling people were involved in both surveys and used the same questions and similar selected group of participants for each, though he wasn't certain for which polling company they conducted the earlier survey. He said the earlier poll was commissioned by an ACCCE predecessor, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices. However, since ABEC formed in 2000, not 1998, that ultimately leaves questions about the timing unanswered.

Allen of AmericanPublic.us describes his practice this way: "I bring a unique perspective to clients' communications challenges and help them to shape public opinion, so their positions can be clearly understood." His specialities: "Public perception of regulated enterprises (banks, utilities), message creation and evaluation in a competitive/campaign environment, polling to support advocacy efforts."

In other words, AmericanPublic.us exists specifically to "shape public opinion" with "message creation" and "polling to support advocacy efforts." That's the mission statement of an organization devoted to the manipulation of public opinion research.

The next claim is that "the poll shows that Americans are very optimistic about the future for coal. When asked the question 'do you believe coal is a fuel for America's future?' – 69% of Americans agreed (compared to only 26% who disagreed)."

This claim is an outright lie.

According to the survey's own methodology, 600 people who qualified as "opinion elites" were polled. It is not possible to generalize the results of a survey from a tiny selected minority out to the entire population at large. It would be like polling just my immediate family about our car buying habits and then trying to apply that to my entire community.

Without a statistical method to correlate your data with the wider population, you cannot draw any conclusions for the wider population. The press release doesn't even attempt to provide a margin of sampling error. Riehle also said a margin of error wouldn't be appropriate for the poll – "It's not statistically the same kind of animal" as a Gallup poll or other random survey of the population, he explained.

So what can we surmise about the survey and related web advertisements?

First, we know that this poll uses a selected population and that selected polls are only valid for the individuals selected. Statistics cannot be used to extrapolate the poll data to the rest of a target population, and so the 72% claim only applies to the 600 individuals polled. Which means that the ACCCE either thinks there are only 600 "opinion elites" in the U.S. or it's misusing the polls results.

Second, we can probably say that this press release is an attempt to manipulate people, and for more reasons than "that's what press releases exist for." There's one blatant lie, possibly a second (the "10 years" claim), and a huge number of unanswered questions. In addition, the page that the advertisement links to has four different links on it that all go to the exact same survey press release, suggesting that an ACCCE online communications expert wanted to make that first page look like there was more research supporting the ad than there really was.

And third, given the first two educated guesses, it's almost certainly accurate to say that the ACCCE advertisement is unsupported bunk.

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