13 March 2012

Talk is cheap. And hard to measure. And harder to interpret.

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | American public opinion toward the space program

From Alexis Madrigal, this was news to me:
In thinking about the recent battles over NASA’s budget, it seems like the problem is simply citizen support. People don’t care that much about space, so space doesn’t get funded. Back in the Apollo days, people loved the space program! Except, as this Space Policy paper pointed out, they didn’t. A majority of Americans opposed the government funding human trips to the moon both before (July 1967) and after (April 1970) Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind. It was only in the months surrounding Apollo 11 that support for funding the program ever reached above 50 percent.
Whenever I see statistics like this I always think "compared to what?" I agree these are interesting — I had always thought the space program was more popular than that — but what do these numbers actually tell us?

How are you supposed to translate favorability ratings into dollars? Is this some kind of all-or-nothing situation? If <50% of people support NASA then shut it down; if >50% of people support NASA then give them everything they want?

How much should people care about space exploration? Or anything else? What's the proper level of caring? What policy would we be justified adopting if public support was 5% higher? 5% lower? What's the hypothesis here?

And how are you asking these questions? "Do you care about space? yes/no. Do you care about bridges and tunnels? yes/no. Do you care about cancer research? yes/no. Do you care ..." If so, there's no cost to claiming you care about lots and lots of things. If someone claims to care about everything, do they really care about any of it? Even if they do, can we tell from these questions?

Unless you set up the survey to read "Manned lunar missions cost you $X. Do you support manned lunar missions?" I will be entirely unconvinced that public opinion is a useful guide for policy.

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