Having spent a decade or so of my most productive years developing and implementing sample surveys, I am acutely aware of their problems. Having said that, there is no alternative, very often, to asking people about something. Economists like to infer attitudes from actions (they seem to distrust asking questions) but I’m not of their ilk. A well-designed questionnaire is an excellent tool to discover what you want. Yes, there are always difficulties, but by and large you can anticipate and overcome them.
The biggest survey I have ever seen, with more than 7 million respondents, still seems to be running. The United Nations put it out, and it is available for everyone in the world to add their own bit. It is about ‘The World We Want’, and it offers participants 16 possible priorities, of which the respondent is asked to nominate the six most important to him or her. Respondents have been able to vote on paper, online and via mobile phones. The list of the sixteen priorities, and the levels of voting for them, goes like this:
A good education 4,837,036
Better healthcare 4,078,970
Better job opportunities 3,935,318
An honest and responsive government 3,321,158
Affordable and nutritious food 2,944,565
Protection against crime and violence 2,825,324
Access to clean water and sanitation 2,695, 009
Suppport for people who can’t work 2.434,376
Better transport and roads 2,324,866
Equality between men and women 2,293,672
Reliable energy at home 2,179,169
Freedom from discrimination and persecution 2,039,378
Political freedoms 2,015,459
Protecting forests, rivers and oceans 1,855,626
Phone and Internet access 1,778,150
Action taken on climate change 1,479,991
As you can imagine, adding my vote did not change these figures noticeably. A first question might be: Are there other issues that ought to be there? And indeed respondents were asked whether or not they wanted to add a priority. I proposed ‘Making music and the arts available to everyone’, which was accepted without comment. What happened to my suggestion I can’t tell you, though you can find out a little more about other offered priorities here. Nor can I tell you who chose the 16.
That said, the list looks reasonable. The priorities have built into them an urge for action by governments of one kind or another, and since the UN is a kind of government that is an understandable bias. ‘Greater love for others’, or ‘happiness within the family’, or ‘less greed and selfishness’ may also be high on people’s ideals for the future, but they are the kind of outcomes that require action at home, at least in part. Sceptics have chortled at the fact that ‘action on climate change’ is last on the list in terms of the numbers choosing it. It was the first on the list when I chose to vote, and saw the priorities for the first time with their empty boxes waiting for my tick, but a second peek at the list showed (I infer) that the priorities are randomised, which would be the right way to present them. The instructions ask you not to vote a second time. I didn’t.
What can learn from these numbers? It is usual to do a quick scan of the dataset to make sure that you got at least some kind of analogue to the real world. Unfortunately, the book which presents the results does not really allow us to do that. We are told that the respondents were 51 per cent male and 49 per cent female, which isn’t bad, that 58 per cent were aged between 16 and 30, which isn’t good, and that 65 per cent had secondary education or better, which isn’t good either — at least in terms of representativeness of the world’s population. Most respondents so far have come from countries with developing or less-developed economies.
Given those biases, I think it is also reasonable that what people wanted was stacked in terms of what would assist them personally: education, health and jobs. As it happens, and again according to the book, education was placed first everywhere and in every group. New Delhi Waste Pickers, a group referred to in the book, had as their first four priorities jobs, education, clean water and decent food; they also placed action on climate change last. Crime and violence were common worries in every group and country. Western Africa placed ‘honest government’ very high.
All in all, what I get from the millions of responses is familiar enough. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people want to be safe, fed, employed and respected. When those needs are met, they can afford to think clearly about the wider needs of their society. ‘Action on climate change’ may not be necessary (and I strongly doubt that it is necessary now), but in any case it is not as important as clean water, a job or education, if you don’t have these available to you.
In fact, the ‘climate change’ priority is last pretty well everywhere, save in one part of the world — ‘Oceania’, which is undefined, but I take to mean Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. In terms of population Oceania is a minuscule part of the world, around 0.5 per cent of humanity, but it is important to those who wrote the book. The ‘climate change’ priority was ranked last in Africa and Asia, 12th in America, 10th in Europe and 7th in Oceania!
Why there, or us? Ah, the book tells us that in Oceania, where the impacts of climate change are being most strongly felt [‘action on climate change’] ranks in seventh place, ahead of better health care and better job opportunities. The book also tells us that interest in the ‘climate change’ priority was highest in the most developed economies, and you might like to note that only 4 per cent of the votes so far have come from Europe. How many came from Oceania? My guess is a small handful.
And what exactly are the impacts of climate change that are being felt most strongly in Oceania? Maybe they mean floods and droughts, but there is no evidence available to show a causal link. Maybe they mean Tuvalu, a common poster child for ‘climate refugees’. But the whole thing is a typical example of the hand-waving and rhetoric associated with the ‘climate change’ brouhaha.
A final comment. If 16 priorities are offered, each will get some votes, and that necessarily inflates all the scores. ‘Cheap and reliable energy’ was not offered as a priority (its available counterpart was ‘reliable energy at home’) but it might have done quite well, given the importance of cheap and available energy to everyone everywhere. ‘Action on climate change’ is a catchphrase of the day, and those able to vote had presumably heard of it or were reminded of it when they saw the list. I would much have preferred the technique of asking the respondents what their own priorities were. I doubt that there would have been many who offered ‘action on climate change’ as one of their own important priorities, certainly not a million or so in seven million.