Polls Vs Trolls: How Koch Industries Distorts EV Incentive Debate

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Let me tell you a story from my misspent youth. I once had a summer job working for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. It was locked in a dispute with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority about whether to replace trolley cars with buses in a certain part of the city. The MBTA decided to ask riders which they preferred but they would not tell BRA what questions they were asking. I was assigned to find out.

The people asking the questions were MBTA employees and they clearly had an agenda. In order to sample as many customer interactions as possible, I cleverly threw several different shirts in my car, brought along an assortment of hats and eyewear and set about discerning what nefarious deeds were being perpetrated by the MBTA.

What I discovered was that the transit authority people were buttonholing passengers and asking such leading questions as “Don’t you just love riding on a shiny new bus as opposed to the broken down, dirty trolley you usually ride to work?” Not surprisingly, a short time later the Boston Globe ran a story trumpeting the news that riders preferred buses to trolley by a wide margin. Surprise, surprise!

Later that day, one of the MBTA workers saw through my clever disguise and shooed me away, threatening to call the police if I returned. My stint as an undercover agent was over. I don’t know what happened to the information I provided to my superiors but I learned something that day. When people start bragging about poll numbers, watch out. Figures lie and liars figure and a poll is only valid if it meets the standards of professional pollsters.

A Fake Poll From A Fake Organization

Image: Screen capture from AEA

Recently, a group calling itself the American Energy Alliance commissioned a poll designed to determine the level of support among voters for EV incentives by asking such questions as “How much they would be willing to pay each year to support the purchase of electric vehicles by other consumers.” Can you guess what the response was? Almost 80% answered “nothing.” Based on that, the AEA is suggesting to members of Congress that they vote against extending or expanding the federal tax credit for electric vehicles. Here’s another beauty. The so-called survey asked people to agree or disagree with this statement: “”It is not right for GM to ask taxpayers for a tax credit.”

A 10-year-old child could tell you this survey was flawed, and knowing who paid for it helps you understand how reliable it is. The AEA, it will come as no surprise, is a front group for Koch Industries, one of the dozens of organizations bought and paid for by Charles and David Koch that have brought us such wonders as Citizens United, annual EV assessments of up to $1,000, and EPA administrators sworn to dismantling the EPA. The so-called poll was also underwritten by the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers.

In announcing the result of this twisted piece of disinformation, Thomas Pyle, the president of American Energy Alliance and known Koch operative, had this to say, “This is further evidence that efforts to compel taxpayers, ratepayers, workers, and consumers to pay for the choices of others, and the preferences of government bureaucrats, are doomed and will lead directly to voter resistance. The citizens of Maine, Michigan, and South Dakota see an expansion of the electric vehicle tax credit exactly for what it is: a giveaway to rich Californians and large, already prosperous corporations.”

Fake Polls Lead To Fake Data

Ed Maibach polling expert
Image credit: greenmanbucket/YouTube

The AEA poll was constructed and administered by MWR Strategies, an organization that is hip deep in a pool of oil money. Its president is Michael McKenna, an energy lobbyist who led Trump’s Energy Department transition team. According to E&E News, he is “well-known in Republican energy circles” and was recently tapped to serve in the White House as an advisor to the president. Here’s what several polling experts contacted by EcoWatch had to say about McKenna’s alleged survey.

Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, said such surveys are designed to be misleading. “Unbiased survey questions intended to elicit people’s opinions about or support for a proposition (such as a proposed public policy) can be done in one of two ways. The proposition can be stated in neutral, factual terms with or without the leading arguments both for and against the proposition.

“The questions on AEA surveys did not state the facts about the propositions but instead made negative claims about the consequences of the propositions. Therefore, people were responding to the negative statements made about the proposition, not the proposition itself. The poll done for AEA was not intended to determine how people actually feel about public policies in support of EVs, rather it was done to give the impression that people do not support use of public resources to support EVs,” he said.

Joshua Dyck, associate professor of political science at UMass Lowell and director of the Center for Public Opinion, supports Maibach’s view. “Agree/disagree items are not a legitimate way to determine public opinion on policy issues. There is a well known response bias for respondents in surveys to agree to prompts in questions structured as agree/disagree items. This is known to survey researchers by the term ‘response acquiescence.’ In order to get at how respondents actually feel, you should allow respondents to pick from balanced options. I wouldn’t put much stock in the agree/disagree items in this survey.”

Asked for comment by EcoWatch, AEA president Thomas Pyle, whose name pops up over and over again in reference to the far flung network of disinformation organizations, was dismissive of what Maibach and Dyck had to say. He said he stands by the survey and adds he “is not concerned about what the greens think about our work.” But Maibach pushed back against that statement. “The problem with his poll is not that ‘the greens’ don’t like the findings,” he said. “The problem is that his findings are bogus, because they asked highly biased questions designed to elicit highly misleading answers.”

And so we wind up where we started, with fake pollsters asking fake poll questions and trying to foist the results off as authoritative. The only defense is to be informed and to use that information to educate others, which is pretty much what CleanTechnica readers do on a daily basis. Thank you for that.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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