Ramesh, I think the quality of polling questions on the stem-cell debate is definitely a problem, but the bigger problem with citing public opinion is that people don’t know much (understandably, it’s a complicated subject) and so are very easily moved. In the absence of clear pre-existing views to measure, it’s almost impossible to formulate a question that won’t define the answer.
Last year, we at the Ethics and Public Policy Center commissioned a poll of 1,000 Americans on bioethics issues, aimed at getting beneath the usual question or two and seeing what the public really knows and what shapes views. (I summarized the findings in the New Atlantis here). We found that more than 40% of respondents rated themselves as unfamiliar with stem-cell research and that the rest weren’t really very familiar either (in fact, the crosstabs showed that professed familiarity with stem-cell research turned out to be a leading indicator of actual ignorance regarding some key facts — the people who were guessing did better than those who said they knew their stuff).
This is part of the reason why the way questions are put on this subject makes such an enormous difference in the answers you get, much more so than on most general political issues where people have a stronger sense of what they’re being asked about, and have more settled general opinions. It suggests that speaking of some great majority being for or against the research is irresponsible. Consider these two questions from our poll, asked of the very same people just moments apart:
The social, economic and personal costs of the diseases that embryonic stem cells have the potential to treat are greater than the costs associated with the destruction of embryos.
54% TOTAL AGREE
39% TOTAL DISAGREE
An embryo is a developing human life, therefore it should not be destroyed for scientific or research purposes.
62% TOTAL AGREE
33% TOTAL DISAGREE
For all practical purposes, there really isn’t any public opinion about stem-cell research. If people knew more, they’d probably have stronger views, but neither side can really claim with any confidence what those views would be based on the available evidence.