While Scientific American’s coverage of the climate change debate is taking some heat, their online reader poll about Judith Curry and climate change is drawing the heaviest fire. Criticism is coming from all sides – be it skeptic Anthony Watts, climate activist-blogger Joe Romm, or Salon’s Andrew Leonard. The primary complaint is that far-right deniers have gotten out the vote and rigged the results. Even SciAm contributor and former editor-in-chief, John Rennie, calls the poll “pitiful.”
Maybe I should begin by noting that I loathe nearly all multiple-choice polls on complex subjects. Even the most artfully written ones flirt with oversimplifying the issues being probed and the range of possible views; listed answers are often frustratingly vague or not mutually exclusive. Sometimes I’ve answered polls, looked back at my own answers and wondered whether I could ever recognize my own true positions in them. And online polls are worse still: they’re usually cobbled together hastily, with little to stop anyone from voting repeatedly or enlisting others from doing so—not to mention the problems with sampling error that hopelessly confound the question of what group the poll results are supposed to represent. No number of footnotes that such polls are not a scientific survey compensate for how misleading the results can be (not that I see such a warning on the SciAm results anyway).
And for SciAm to do an online poll about site visitors’ views on a contentious subject like global warming? Sheer folly. Nothing good could come of it. The likelihood that SciAm’s name would be associated with gamed results that nobody really believed but that would be trotted out embarrassingly hereafter would border on a dead certainty.
Too bad nobody told them that before they launched the beleaguered questionnaire.