Leading Questions and Tainted Answers
Russia’s last independent television station made a symbolic gesture by playing “Swan Lake” as they went dark this weekend; there will be no updates on the war if Putin can help it. Unlike Russia, the U.S. media isn’t flinching in showing us the grim reality of war. We’ve all see the horror and bravery. We’ve watched children clutching stuffed animals as their parents try to navigate to safety. We’ve watched a Ukrainian couple get married and immediately take up arms. We’ve seen civilians stare down Russian tanks on the roads to their cities. We’ve watched a bomb go off and the aftermath of that cruelty. We’ve seen a president rise to the occasion while facing down assassination attempts. It feels like a movie. It isn’t. We need to remember that.
So, it’s important to take the pulse of the nation in times like this. We are facing some pretty impossible scenarios; there is not a clear answer as to what to do next. But Americans are definitely watching, and there is broad support for helping Ukraine. Some of that help comes with a dire cost. For example, the majority of Americans polled in a Reuters/Ipsos poll completed on Friday said they supported boycotting Russian oil and setting up a no-fly zone over Ukraine. 74% want the no-fly zone; it has a rare bipartisan support. However, there is a dilemma in a poll like this one, and sociologists feel that dilemma all the time.
I teach my intro students about leading questions; these are questions that may cause a respondent to give a biased answer. If we aren’t careful, we can cause our respondents to unknowingly support our own views. This should be avoided at all costs for objective science. So, for example, if a researcher was asking a poll question about commuting and mentioned that the majority of Americans hate commuting, that researcher is leading the respondent. The answer given is now tainted.
This is where the dilemma about the poll on Friday comes in. According to experts, a no-fly zone in Ukraine would escalate tensions between NATO and Russia. It would put U.S. and NATO fighter planes in direct contest with Russian jets. Our cold war would turn hot really quickly. I imagine most Americans that answered that question don’t realize this. They are likely thinking that a no-fly zone would help Ukraine, and so we should do it. If the pollster tells them a no-fly zone could be construed as a declaration of war, it would lead the respondent and tarnish their answer.
In addition, with regard to Russian oil, the pollsters cannot tell the respondents that boycotting Russian oil would lead our already high gas prices to go up further. As Europe scrambles to replace the oil they receive from Russia, everyone will put the squeeze on the supply. We are already facing pretty unprecedented numbers; those would go up. But if the respondent knows that info, it is likely to have an impact on their answer.
We often offer broad support when we see injustice; it’s a human quality. But another human quality is to think about ourselves. It is why we tend to relate things to our own experiences. Those comparisons make us feel connected and validated. However, once we try to balance those two feelings (wanting to help but thinking of ourselves), the latter often wins out in the end.
I would hypothesize that the likelihood that Americans really want to send American troops over to Ukraine or pay sky-high gas prices is pretty low. So, as we discuss the pressure felt by the Biden administration because of these polls, we have to put the polls into context. The pollsters cannot lead the respondents without ruining the poll. Americans may not have a broad sense of the actual consequences of these choices.
It is a tough thing to examine what pain has to accompany the gains we say we want. When our commute is prohibitively expensive or we are facing down the threat of an actual world war, we might not find that pain to be worth it. It’s an important context to consider as we face what’s coming next. There is no doubt that it’s a delicate situation that feels impossible to solve, but the answer may not lie in what the American people have to say about it.