Class polls students on climate change

May 19, 2016, 12:23 a.m.

On May 28, the students from COMM 138: “Deliberative Democracy Practicum: Applying Deliberative Polling” will host an event called “What’s Next Stanford? A Forum on Climate Policy” to discover what Stanford students would believe about climate change and sustainability under “ideal” circumstances. The results will be reported to the Stanford community in hopes of improving sustainability policies.

Ideal circumstances in deliberative polling consist of being properly informed and having adequate time to consider one’s position on an issue. This event – to be held in FroSoCo – will conduct a deliberative poll exploring the community’s views on climate change and practices to promote sustainability at Stanford.

The organizers hope to disseminate the poll’s results to guide university policy around sustainability, which could include items ranging from investments to energy conservation practices.

“At a minimum, there will be a report coming out of [the event],” said Alice Siu, the deputy director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy and the professor of the class. “It will be distributed widely. It will be shared with the community. It will be shared [with] the Trustees.”

The uses of deliberative polling

According to communications professor James Fishkin, the inventor of deliberative polling, deliberative polling answers the key question, “what would a population really think about an issue if they discussed it under ideal conditions?”

To simulate such conditions, the poll will obtain a random sample from the population and inform participants about all sides of a given issue. Participants will discuss the issue in groups and ask experts questions, eventually filling out a questionnaire regarding their stance on the issue.

Throughout the event, the pollsters will listen in on the conversations to obtain key information for policy-making beyond the participants’ stances on the issue. This could include factors of decision-making and why people come to the stances they do, which is useful in considering policy implementation.

Since its conception in 1988, deliberative polling projects have occurred at least 70 times in about 40 countries, such as Uganda, Brazil, Mongolia and South Korea with impactful results.

For instance, Fishkin recalled that in Texas, a major power company partnered with Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy to perform a deliberative poll on Texans’ views on wind power. With the information from that poll, the power company made a large investment in wind power, and Texas went from the last state in wind power generation to the first.

Details behind the event

The organizers of the event decided to conduct a deliberative poll on climate change and Stanford’s sustainability policies because of the pressing nature of these issues. Paloma Hernandez ’18, an organizer, noted that sustainability has received attention recently with the opening of the new energy plant on campus and Stanford’s recent decision not to divest from fossil fuels. The poll aims to address these issues.

“This is about [finding] trade-offs and investments,” Fishkin said.

In addition to focusing on climate change, the organizers decided to conduct the poll on a random sample of freshmen and sophomores. According to Siu, the organizers wanted to give underclassmen an opportunity to help shape Stanford’s policy and understand climate policy in California. The organizers hope to conduct a follow-up study to see how views have morphed over time.

However, obtaining such a random sample of students has been difficult. According to Hernandez, recruiting students is the hardest part of planning the event: In order to get a representative sample, the poll must have at least 100 students participating. The team created incentives for students to come, such as $100 reward and Ike’s sandwiches. But the team also hopes that experience will be worthwhile in itself.

“I can guarantee that they will really enjoy it,” Fishkin said.

Special effort was spent to ensure that the materials were unbiased. Informative materials were shared with various professors across departments. According to Hernandez, wording of surveys ensured that questions would not lead to a particular answer.

According to Hernandez, creating the materials for the polls, such as the briefing materials and surveys, has required arduous work – but it has been rewarding. She hopes that the students participating in the event will learn more about how to deal with issues regarding sustainability.

“If the opportunity presents itself, we hope to have a more structured presentation of … results, and be able to present these results to student body and faculty,” Siu said.


Contact Christina Pan at [email protected].

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