Thursday 3 March 2011

FASD and reading polls

It must be a slow news day.

Mia Rabson, staring at her empty in box this morning, was forced to manufacture a story that only half of Manitobans know what causes FASD. This willful misinterpretation of a poll should never have been published, or perhaps should have been written as "Between 97% and 100% of Manitobans know what causes FASD" ... but that wouldn't really be news-worthy.

The poll asked: In your opinion, how much alcohol, if any, would you consider a "safe" amount for a woman to drink at one time while pregnant?
none: 88%
1 drink: 6%
2 drinks: 1%
don't know/unsure: 3%

So it appears that at least 97% of Manitobans realize that drinking alcohol at some level is unsafe. The remaining 3% may also know this, but may not be sure what the "safe" level is. This is understandable, as scientists don't know either. You may question that 1 or 2 drinks is safe, but there have been a number of studies including a well publicized British study late last year that determined that moderate drinking actually appears to be safe:

Children whose mothers have one or two drinks per week during pregnancy are not at any greater risk for developing behavioral or cognitive problems than children whose mothers abstained completely. -link-
... not that I would recommend drinking anything.

The reason Mia says that half of Manitobans are stupid neanderthals who live under a rock, is because of this question:

"The only way to get FASD is by drinking during pregnancy"
Strongly agree: 46%

Like I wrote in the Freep comments: "
"It sounds like a trick question. Maybe you can get the same condition by drinking gasoline or smoking salvia or hanging upside down for 8 hours a day while pregnant. Who knows?"
Or, like a different reader more coherently writes:
"People who know FASD is caused by alcohol consumption during pregnancy may answer "neutral" or something south of that answer because they don't know if there's possibly another way to get FASD. Drinking heavily just before pregnancy, perhaps? Drinking while breast feeding? Although I believe they are not ways to get FASD, a reasonable non-medical person might think it's possible, and not want to answer definitively that alcohol during pregnancy is the ONLY way to get it."
The survey itself is flawed and probably not worth reporting on. Mia's mangling of the results compounds the flaws to such a degree that the reader is left less informed than if they had never seen the article in the first place.

Come on, Mia. I know you can do better than this.

1 comment:

The View from Seven said...

You raise a good point about an issue which has never been resolved in the polling industry: should people be encouraged to express doubt?

From childhood on, we are taught that doubt is a bad thing. Witness a politician give "I don't know" as the answer, and watch him/her be attacked for being weak and indecisive. Express an "I don't know" on the existence of God and risk the wrath of both the strongly religious and the strongly atheist. Tell a Customs officer that you "don't know" what the answer to a question is and risk being accused of being evasive.

Undoubtedly, these lessons influence polling. Ask a sufficiently large random sample of people a question, and you will usually get an answer quite close to what you would have received if you asked absolutely everybody -- but with those doubts still suppressed.

If people are reassured that it's okay to express doubt, however, and you might get a different response all around.

There will still be debate for years to come over whether it's a good thing or a bad thing to encourage people to express doubt. Encouraging people to express doubt could provide a more accurate description of what's going on in people's minds -- we experience enough confusion over simple things such as what to make for dinner, never mind more complicated issues -- but could also mean losing valuable information about people's leanings and guesses.

Which way is better when measuring public opinion -- with or without the "doubt option"? I don't know.

But I suspect our world might be a better place if we were all made to feel more comfortable about saying "I don't know" out loud.

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