What if pollsters asked these questions?

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Questions often say more about the questioner than the answers reveal about those who answer. For example, a recent public opinion poll on the Middle East crisis asked respondents whether they agreed there is “no basic difference between a suicide attack on the World Trade Centre in New York and a suicide bombing of a restaurant or teenage hangout in Israel.”

Clearly, the question is at the very least sympathetic to the Israeli position that suicide bombers and those who attacked the World Trade Centre committed basically similar atrocities, in principle, if not scale, and therefore, should be responded to in the same manner: with overwhelming force.

As it turns out, the poll is sponsored by B’nai Brith, an organization whose sympathies with Israel are well know. It’s doubtful that al-Awda, a group advocating the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel, would ask the question in quite the same way. It’s doubtful that al-Awda would have the money to a commission a poll.

According to the research, 84 percent agreed with the statement that 9/11 and Palestinian suicide bombings are basically the same, making the results eminently releasable to the media, for they seem to say, “Look, the public agrees with Israel on this.”

It could be said that B’nai Brith was simply trying to find out to whether the public agrees with a well-established Israeli (and presumably B’nai Brith) position on the equivalence of 9/11 and Palestinian suicide bomb attacks, but that would be disingenuous. Poll sponsors are rarely ever interested in what the public believes. They’re more interested in getting the public to come around to their way of thinking. Finding out where the public stands is one way of deciding how to get from A to Z. Releasing the right poll results to the media, is one way of making the trip.

It’s highly unlikely that B’nai Brith would have released the results of the poll had a majority disagreed . The truth can be bad for PR, and these days, Israel’s had to deal with more truth than it wants to. But then most polls are less dispassionate inquiries into public opinion, and more passionate pursuit of public relations.

For those who worry about polls reflecting self-selected opinions, this is called the file drawer problem. You only get to see the results the poll’s sponsor wants you to see. Stuck away in thousands of drawers in polling offices around the world are results that, well, “are just not helpful.”

And since pollsters want sponsors to pay for more polls, they take it upon themselves to reduce the number of results that ever have to go into the file drawer in the first place, by asking questions in ways the conduce to producing pleasing results for their moneyed clients. Indeed, one Canadian pollster is known for boasting to his colleagues that he can, through careful crafting of questions, get any answer he wants. Having had some experience in the polling business I can attest that this is no great accomplishment, the means of finessing the right answer being well-established.

Here, by way of illustration, is a set of questions that will elicit quite different answers, but which will never be asked, because anyone who would find the answers pleasing, quite frankly, doesn’t have the money to pay for the poll that would ask them. As writer Doug Henwood says, “With wealth comes extraordinary social power — the power to buy politicians, pundits, and professors, and to dictate both public and corporate policy.” He forgot polls. With wealth comes the power to buy polls too.

Herein, then, are the kinds of questions those without money to buy a pollster might ask, if they could.

Do you agree or disagree that there is no basic difference between a suicide bombing of a restaurant or teenage hangout in Israel, and attacks on a refugee camp by warplanes, helicopter gunships and tanks that indiscriminately kill women, children and the elderly?

Do you agree there is no basic difference between a suicide attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, which indiscriminately killed thousands of innocent people, and a sustained bombing campaign on Afghanistan, which indiscriminately killed thousands of innocent people?

Do you agree or disagree that there is no basic difference between Iraq occupying Kuwaiti territory conquered in war, in defiance of international law, and Israel occupying Palestinian territory conquered in war, in defiance of international law?

Do you agree or disagree that the United States should cease all shipment of arms and military equipment to Israel, until Israel withdraws from the occupied territories, as per UN Resolution 242?

Do you agree or disagree that the United States should stop selling arms and military equipment to other countries, period?

Finally, do you agree or disagree that most people who take issue with Israeli policy with regard to the occupied territories are concerned with Israel’s violations of international and humanitarian law and are not motivated by anti-Semitism?

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the answers — the questions will never be asked.

And if they are, there are lots of empty file drawers around to hide the results in.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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