Polls and Pat Downs: Questionable Results and Misguided Narratives

An ABC news/Washington Post poll recently reported that two of every three Americans (64%) supported the use of full body x-ray scanners. The same poll also found that half of all Americans (50%) said that “enhanced” pat downs were justified for those who refused the x-ray scans or presented suspicious images. For security methods that are so intrusive of a person’s personal privacy, these results are nothing less than astonishing. But astonishing doesn’t necessarily mean accurate. What follows is a more detailed analysis of the ABC poll that strongly suggests the findings are methodologically unsound, and that support for these intrusive procedures may be substantially lower than those reported by the poll.

The most problematic methodological issue is that the results of the ABC poll were based on a telephone survey. The telephone survey is an inadequate methodology to accurately measure public attitudes to the new security methods. Why? Because the methodology does not deliver sufficient information to respondents for them to make meaningful and informed responses about the nature of these intrusive procedures.

Below is the precise wording for the two questions used in the ABC poll (produced by Langer Research Associates) that provided the information to respondents about the security procedures:

Full body x-ray scan question

“The Transportation Security Administration is increasing its use of so-called ‘full-body’ digital x-ray machines to screen passengers in airport security lines. (Supporters say these machines improve the ability to spot hidden weapons and explosives, and reduce the need for physical searches.) (Opponents say these machines invade privacy by producing x-ray images of a passenger’s naked body that security officials can see, and don’t provide enough added security to justify this.) Which comes closer to your own view – do you support or oppose using these scanners in airport security lines?”

Pat down question

“The TSA says it will hand-search people who don’t want to be screened electronically, as well as those whose electronic screening raises a question. A TSA screener of the same sex as the passenger checks for hidden objects by placing his or her palms and fingers on the passenger’s body, including sensitive areas such as the groin and breast. This replaces earlier hand-screening in which sensitive areas were touched only with the back of the hand. Do you think these new hand pat-procedures (are justified to try to prevent terrorism), or do you think they (go too far in invading personal privacy)?”

Imagining the Abstract versus the Experience

Note that the questions about these security methods were decidedly abstract. They described the pros and cons of each method but offered little insight as to how each method invaded your privacy. While stating the x-ray images revealed images of “a passenger’s naked body”, respondents were NOT shown examples of scans showing detailed images of a man’s genitalia or a woman’s breasts. With respect to the pat downs, respondents were left to imagine what it would feel like for a stranger to place “his or her palms and fingers on the passenger’s body, including sensitive areas such as the groin and breast.” I suggest that imagining a stranger groping you in your private areas and actually experiencing it would elicit very different reactions in most people. The abstract nature of the telephone survey methodology that cannot include the powerful visual imagery of x-ray scans and the physical discomfort and embarrassment of being groped by a stranger (possibly in public) simply does not lend itself to measuring the true attitudes of the public to these invasive security measures.

Interestingly, the ABC poll itself suggests that the experience of these invasive procedures may be central in influencing the public to reject them. The poll found that among those who had flown at least once this year (and therefore possibly had some experience with an invasive security procedure), support for full body x-ray scans dropped to 58 % compared to 70 % for those who had not flown in the past year. More frequent fliers expressed even more resistance to the x-ray scans. These results, together with a comparison with an earlier CBS poll showing that support for full body scanners slipped from 81% to 64%, shows a substantial growth in the public’s resistance to this invasive procedure.

A better methodology

If the telephone survey is not an appropriate methodology to accurately measure how the public feels about these invasive procedures, then what is? Perhaps in this instance we should go back to the traditional household survey involving a face to face interview. In a household survey the interviewer can show the respondent how a typical x-ray scan would reveal the details of a person’s private parts, and then ask the question of whether the respondent would object are not object to this method being used on them. In the pat down question, if the respondent were more venturesome and wanted to know what was involved in the pat down, the interviewer could be trained to demonstrate this. At this stage a male respondent would, for example, learn of the need to manipulate his genitalia sufficiently to determine that nothing feels like possible bomb material in that area. Of course, if the respondent felt uncomfortable with this prospect, he could simply answer the question without going through the demonstration. I can guarantee you that the results of a survey that demonstrates the security procedures in a real “hands on” way would be profoundly different from what was measured by the ABC telephone poll.

So why didn’t ABC use a more appropriate methodology befitting the issue being studied? Two reasons come to mind. The primary reason is that they’re much more costly than telephone surveys. They also have a much longer turnaround. A telephone survey can be turned around for a broadcaster or newspaper overnight and on the following day deliver the results on air or in print. This simply cannot be managed with a person-to-person in-house survey. In effect, accuracy of results for public attitudes to the new security screening methods was sacrificed for financial and temporal expediency of the survey client.

Misguided narratives

The importance of getting an accurate picture of public opinion about these invasive procedures is not just a virtue unto itself. Accurate poll information is critical in influencing the social and political narrative about national security, the role of the TSA and how the public is served by its government.

For example, taking the ABC polls on face value creates a narrative where a large number of Americans genuinely believe the TSA warnings about a terrorist threat and are willing to sacrifice their privacy rights in exchange for greater air safety i.e., fear trumps rights. The fly in the ointment here is the abundant polling evidence that America’s trust in their government is very low. A recent CNN poll reported that “only 26 percent of the public trusts the federal government most of the time or always.” If that is true, it doesn’t really follow that a majority of Americans would place their trust (resulting in significant loss of privacy rights) in the TSA, an organ of the federal government.

The contrarian narrative is rather more interesting. Critics claim that the TSA has led the charge on behalf of the American government to create a fear of terrorism among its citizens that belies the reality. It has been said that if Al Qaeda was as well-organized as the government claims, it would have mounted a number of devastating attacks across the heartland of America since 9/11. That has not happened. Why is not entirely clear. The TSA and other spy agencies of course claim it has been their antiterrorist efforts that have kept the terrorists at bay. That’s not easy to prove, nor disprove. It’s worth noting here that notable terror attempts like the failed shoe bomber, the failed underwear bomber, and the failed Times Square car bomber were derailed by a vigilant public and not any government group. In fact, it’s almost scary how reactive the TSA was during these crises. New TSA screening procedures seem to follow on the heels of the latest terrorist bomb innovation. Aren’t they supposed to be a step ahead of these people?  And what happens when a terrorist decides to hide a bomb in their anal or vaginal cavity? Will air travelers be required to undergo cavity probes with technology that convenient polls will show is enthusiastically supported by a majority of Americans? When the dominant narrative theme is a fearful public, privacy rights seem to fly out the window.

The inaccurate perception of a fearful American public and a TSA security policy that targets all Americans as potential terrorists have created a hugely expensive security program involving a massive bureaucracy and a security industry that is making money hand over fist… and no real evidence that any of this is really working.

Accurate polling information about how Americans really feel about these intrusive methods would fundamentally change the nature of these narratives. Accurate data showing strong resistance from a majority of Americans to these methods would clearly demonstrate that their decision-making is not driven by fear. Privacy rights are part and parcel of what it means to be American. Yet Americans are a commonsensical people. They understand and are willing to accept some infringement of their privacy rights to improve aircraft security. There is, however, a limit beyond which the reduction of privacy rights would constitute a de facto victory by the 9/11 terrorists. The latest TSA screening initiatives may have crossed that line.

We’ll know when we get some accurate polling data on the subject.

About Oleh Iwanyshyn

Oleh Iwanyshyn has been involved professionally with surveys from the mid-70s when he started as a methodologist at the Institute for Behavioral Research at York University. Later, while at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation his focus shifted to media and election surveys. He now runs his own survey research company, ViewStats Research, established in 1997 and specializing in online surveys. Public opinion surveys is an essential communication tool between a democratic society and its leaders. Unfortunately, surveys can be very easily manipulated. Revealing such manipulations and their consequences is the raison d'être of the poll stuff blog.
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4 Responses to Polls and Pat Downs: Questionable Results and Misguided Narratives

  1. Pingback: Police State Charges Woman for Groping TSA Agent :: Stop Austin Scanners!

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