On January 29 I posted a blog titled, “Poll Position.” It documented how, over the decades, public support for the government space program has been tepid at best.
Which is why I was suspicious when a poll released by a group called Explore Mars released a poll February 12 claiming that 75% of Americans want to increase NASA's budget to 1% of the federal budget, and 71% believe humans will go to Mars by 2033.
According to the press release:
The poll found that 71 percent of Americans are confident that humans will go to Mars by 2033. When told that there are currently two operational NASA rovers on Mars, 67 percent of respondents agreed the U.S. should send both humans and robots to Mars.
Americans, on average, believe that NASA spending represents 2.4 percent of the federal budget, with a standard deviation of 1.68 percent. In reality, the Administration’s request for NASA for FY2013 was $17.7 billion representing approximately 0.5 percent of the federal budget.
After being presented with this percentage, 75 percent of Americans said they “Strongly Agree” or “Agree” that it is worthwhile to increase NASA’s percentage of the federal budget to 1 percent to fund a mission to Mars.
Having dabbled in political consulting for many years, and having taken several college-level statistics courses over the years, I was suspicious of this poll's claims so I dug further.
The first thing you check with a poll is the population sample. Who was polled?
If my question was, "Should Barack Obama be re-elected?" and I polled only Republicans, obviously the answer would be skewed. The same if I asked only Democrats.
How you conduct the survey is also important. Telephone surveys are no longer considered reliable, because who has a phone, who answers and what type of phones are called (home, business, cell) all affect the poll's demographics.
So who was polled for this Mars survey?
According to the press release:
The survey was conducted by email and targeted a nationwide sample. All efforts were made to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population 18 years and older given normal standards of statistical sampling.
That's even less reliable than a phone poll.
A Preliminary Snapshot Report of the poll is on their web site. It provides no more details about the poll's demographics, other than to state, “The full report, including demographic data, is scheduled to be released on March 4, 2013.”
So they won't even tell us who they polled until next month.
To further strain this poll's credulity, it was conducted by Phillips & Company. Visit their web site and you find out it's not a polling business. It's a marketing firm. To quote from their About page:
Phillips & Company is a global communications firm that helps clients create, defend and sustain leadership positions through public relations and business development.
We help companies and organizations focus on the opportunities and strategies that accelerate market adoption and success by creating greater demand for products, services and ideas. Ultimately, we help our clients build and reinforce their position as a trusted leader.
To further erode their credibility, Phillips & Company President Rich Phillips joined the Explore Mars Board of Directors in December. To quote from their press release:
"We are extremely happy to welcome Rich to the board of directors," said Explore Mars Executive Director Chris Carberry. "Rich's background and his ability to bring people together are precisely what Explore Mars needs at this point in time to help move the organization forward and effectively advance the cause of sending humans to Mars" ...
"The Explore Mars team has been instrumental at advancing the cause for exploring the Red Planet and the benefits to U.S. leadership and mankind," said Phillips. "I am confident that a man or woman will step onto the surface of Mars in our lifetime, and I am proud to work with Explore Mars to help fulfill that mission."
This business relationship and conflict of interest is not disclosed in the report.
So we have a feel-good poll conducted by e-mail of an unknown population sample, conducted not by a professional polling firm but by a marketing company whose president is on the client's board of directors.
This would get you punted out of a beginning Statistics course.
Someone at NASA bought into all this, because it was retweeted by @NASA without checking the poll's validity.
I'm all for human spaceflight and exploring Mars when it becomes financially and technologically viable, but let's not rig false polls to mislead the space advocacy movement into thinking there's widespread public support when there isn't. It only harms the cause, and will be dismissed by politicians who know all about polling and how to create a fake one.