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Study shows writer declines intimacy with TV dolphin.

A colleague accurately pointed out that it is this sort of thing that gives research a bad name, to which I would add that it is also hurtfid to a decent person such as Wilma.

But there is more to be concerned about here than some silly survey or the hurt feelings of a 30,000-year-old woman. For instance, just who are these men who seem to believe that it might be possible to have sex with cartoon characters? Do you think they are registered to vote? And what kind of question did the surveyors ask, anyway: "If you could have guilt-free conjugal relations with a cartoon character, who would it be?" Did any answer "Popeye?"

It seems that every day, someone is trotting out a survey that shows how dumb we are - such as the U.S. National Science Foundation survey that revealed that 55 percent of adult Americans (about 94 million persons) think that the Earth revolves around the sun. (Unreported were the 40 percent who said the sun was made of Sterno.) At about the same time the NSF survey findings were released, a National Geographic Society survey showed that the average American knows less about geography than an adult raccoon, with three out of four persons believing that Paraguay is "a kind of margarine."

If surveys are not embarrassing us with our own ignorance, they are asking us blatantly leading questions to get the survey's sponsors the answers they need to advance their narrow agenda. Here 1 am thinking of The Bark-Eaters League, which every year sends me a "survey" with questions such as, "Do you, as a caring human, object to the illegal dumping of toxic wastes in the sea by greedbag corporate thieves who actually secrete drool when they see dolphins suffer horribly ?"

Another favorite example: I once worked with a group of consultants who performed a certain kind of training- In a survey of potential trainee/employees, the consultants asked, "Would you like to have a day away from work to take an interesting seminar?" Considering that the employees who were asked this question spend their days dealing mostly with slag and grime in occupations that are mostly hernia-inducing, you have to wonder why anyone would answer, "What, go to a comfy seminar when I could be spending my time herring and groaning? Huh-uh, pal, forget it."

Of course, far more can go wrong with surveys than designing questions to get skewed results. The size of the population sampled can be too small or too selective. If you use a telephone survey, you can only reach persons who have telephones. Even then, it is getting to the point where the only persons who will answer telephone surveys are the terminally bored. Often, the technicalities of survey methodology are ignored when the media report survey results. To many journalists, "standard deviation" means "voyeurism."

The deranged cousin of the opinion survey is the "study." While opinion surveys are often used in the formulation of communication plans and policies, studies are more often used to support a preconceived position. You should also look at study results with your eyes wide open, and preferably jaundiced. For instance, a study done by the disposable diaper cartel purports to show that disposable diapers are better for the environment than cloth ones. A study done by cloth diaper moguls shows - surprise! - just the opposite.

Not too long ago, I read that catnaps at work were being endorsed by a group called The Better Sleep Council. Now I know nothing at all about the Better Sleep Council, but as I read about their pro-catnap stand, I asked myself some questions: What could you reasonably expect the Sleep Council to say, that sleep is bad? Should we be just a little suspicious that anyone calling themselves the Sleep Council just might have a pro-sleep bias? And what exactly is the Better Sleep Council anyway? Does it lobby against the efforts of the Institute for Wakefulness?

As caring, human communication persons, we should never countenance the use of biased surveys or loaded studies. As persons of opinion, we should similarly refuse to answer them. You would never catch me telling a researcher that I would like to have an intimate relationship with, say, Flipper, and anyone who says different is lying and just called someone who sounded like me.

I wasn't even home that night.

Dan Danborn is vice president of the Bureau of Business Mirth, which provides syndicated humor to organizations, and director of research for Public Service Co. of Colorado, which doesn't.
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Title Annotation:biased surveys and loaded studies
Author:Danbom, Dan
Publication:Communication World
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Previous Article:Paper: from forests to wastebaskets ... and back!
Next Article:Freedom of speech vs. politically correct language.

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