Wednesday, July 09, 2008

How not to win an argument

The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust decided that they wanted an opinion poll which 'proved' that Teh People have turned against the idea of locking up terrorist suspects for six weeks.

So just to make sure that the people would give the correct answers, when they commissioned ICM to conduct polling, they got the interviewer to read out a paragraph summarising the arguments against this policy, then two other questions designed to associate the policy with locking up innocent people, and then to present five different options, with six weeks being the longest of the options on offer.

Mission accomplished, in one sense, in that only 38% picked the option of six weeks. Cue the press release saying that 60% support detaining terrorist suspects for no more than 28 days.

There's nothing wrong with using opinion surveys to test out different messages and arguments to see how they influence the decisions that people make (indeed, this is usually a much better use of opinion polling then trying to find out what public opinion is at any given moment). For example, the survey included a question which asked people who supported the government's policy whether they would change their minds in the knowledge that six weeks is as long as the prison sentence which someone convicted of burglary or assault serves. This fact on its own persuaded 35% of people to change their minds.

But what the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust have tried to do is to claim that the public are already being persuaded by the arguments of opponents of six weeks detention without trial, rather than that it could be won given the right arguments. I agree with them on the issue, but finding out that as long as people just hear only our side of the argument, then a majority will agree with us isn't actually very helpful. When in a minority, it is better to find out how to win people over, rather than declare that you are the majority.

What would have been much more valuable would have been if they had started with a neutral question about the issue, and then tested out different arguments to see which the most persuasive were. It wouldn't have got as good a headline, but it would have been a much better contribution to the debate and a much better resource for campaigners for civil liberties.


At 11:58 pm , Blogger Quinn said...

Agreed. I am sceptical about, although not 100% against, the need for 42 days. But the use of the word “innocent” seems to have been used far too indiscriminately in this survey, as elsewhere. In law, even after charge and waiting trial months hence, people are rightly considered innocent until proven guilty. If we adopt the US system, and force a lesser charge within 48 hours, then further post-charge questioning until the trial date, we still have a situation where potentially innocent people are held for over (well over) 42 days. In the clamour to oppose the recent anti-terror law, I have yet to hear someone suggest that this, or one of the alternative systems, is really one we should aspire to.

At 8:40 am , Anonymous Lee Griffin said...

How can anyone innocent be charged with a lesser offence (of which you need evidence)? They may not be able to be held for longer than the lesser offence allows but they will not be held as an innocent.

At 9:43 am , Blogger Quinn said...

Lee, the idea that one is charged with a lesser offence and then questioned post-charge is not my invention, rather it is often advanced as the reason the US authorities can do in 2 days what takes the UK security services 28. This does not seem to me to be a particularly transparent way of doing things.

With regards the substance of your comment, I’m not sure I truly grasp what you mean, so please correct me if I seem patronising, but clearly innocent people can be charged for a lesser (or any) offence. Furthermore, after charge, in the eyes of the law, you are held as and remain innocent all the way up to trial and until proven guilty. Yes, you need prima facie evidence, but there is no shortage of cases that have been abandoned later due to lack of evidence, or have been thrown out by the judge, have been dismissed by the jury, or where convictions have been overturned on appeal.

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