Is this the most biased opinion poll question ever asked?

The Coalition for Marriage was launched last week. And as many groups do to try and drum up some publicity announce themselves to the world, they commissioned an opinion poll of public attitudes to equal marriage.

Which is fair enough. But then, it appears, a thought struck them. The UK is, by and large, a tolerant nation, with the vast majority now accepting of gay and lesbian relationships being respected and recognised. So… how to pose an opinion poll question that could produce the result they wanted?

Thankfully, ComRes (a member of the British Polling Council) did them proud. You can read it here.

It is a brief masterclass in asking the right questions to produce the results you want.

First, the neutral question that comforts the respondent that the views they hold are eminently reasonable: ‘Please tell me the extent to which you agree or disagree with [this] statement about the definition of marriage… It is possible to be tolerant of the rights of others and protective of traditional marriage at the same time.’ Unsurprisingly, 86% of the public agrees with this beguilingly innocuous true-ism.

And so are we lined up for the clincher, the killer question, so loaded with intrinsic bias it is almost admirably breathtaking in its audacity:


‘Please tell me the extent to which you agree or disagree with [this] statement about the definition of marriage… Since gay and lesbian couples already have the same rights as married couples available to them under civil partnership, they should not be allowed to redefine marriage for everyone else.’

It’s a question which would have been only marginally less subtle if paraphrased as ‘Don’t you think those gays are getting a bit above themselves, eh?’

Given the brazen slant of the question, I was actually quite surprised to see that only 51% agreed with the statement, with 34% disagreeing.

I think the wording of this poll question tells us everything we need to know about the credibility of the Coalition for Marriage — and, perhaps more importantly, everything we need to know about the confidence they have in their own case that they should pray in aid such dubious tactics.

As Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone noted here:

Marriage is a right of passage for couples who want to show they are in a committed relationship, for people who want to show they have found love and wish to remain together until death do them part. Why should we deny it to people who happen to be gay or lesbian who wish to show that commitment and share it with their family, friends and everybody else? We should be proud of couples who love each other and a society that recognises their love as equal.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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26 Comments

  • Richard Dean 28th Feb '12 - 1:03pm

    Whether a preson regards a question as baissed or not can depend on which answer that person wants other people to give!

    This question is long and complicated, yes, but you have not explained the technicalities of how the bias is achieved. In what way does the question itself encourage the respondent to answer one way or the other? Nor have you given an alternative. I find that it’s actually quite hard to find one that is simple and not open to misinterpretation. For example

    Should gay and lesibians be allowed to marry?

    is open to misinterpretation – is it asking whether they can marry each other, or whether they should be alloowed to marry in a two-sex arrangement? Another could be:

    Should gay and lesbian people be prevented from marrying each other?

    Some might argue that this is biassed towards the No answer because “prevention” implies coercion which many people disagree with. Others niufht argue that people like the power of coercing others, so it’s biassed towards Yes!

    While I don’t diasagree with what you are trying to achieve, your logic also starts with Lynne’s assertion about what marriage is, and there will be people whon disagree with that assertion – people who believe that marriage has religious significance for example. People will say that Lynne;s argument is biassed because she starts with an unproven assertion – somne would say a false premise.

    Perhaps there ought to be some kind of science about how to ask unbiassed questions!

  • Guy Patching 28th Feb '12 - 1:26pm

    Perhaps I can clear this up for you Mr. Dean.

    What Lynne says may well have a bias, and may well try to pursuade but that’s quite openly what she’s trying to do. Of course you can argue a premise here and there, that’s what debate it is.

    A poll is conducted, when honest, to try and guage the viewpoints of those you are consulting. If you are loading the question you’re effectively trying to Duke the stats to suit yourself, something that is fundamentally (if you’ll excuse the pun) dishonest.

    How are the questions biased? Well I beleive that’s covered above but perhaps I can zone it on it:

    – The first question basically tells us nothing, as one can support gay marraige and still give either answer. However it is possible to interepret the answers differently, and one can’t help but suspect a press release from the “coalition” may come.

    – The second question assumes that gay marriage will change the definition of marriage “for the rest of us” which in and of itself is a ludicrous assumption. Also it starts with a loaded statement that aids one side of the argument.

  • Richard Dean 28th Feb '12 - 1:36pm

    Thanks Guy, but I’m afraid your answer looks biassed! :-)

    Lynne has offerred a definition of marriage which many people would disagree with – a rite (or does she really mean “right”?) of passage rather than a religious vow. Consequently, “redefine marriage for everyone else” can be argued to be an accurate statement of what Lynne is proposing. If so – ie.if it is indeed an accurate descriptio of what she is proposing – then the question would appear to be fair and unbiassed!

    Getting a science of asking unbiasse questions is a real hard puzzle. It’s like working out how to get a truthful answer from someone – so easy to ask in a way that make the respondent say what they think you want to hear. I look forward to your suggestions for some principles on how to do this.

  • Scott Berry 28th Feb '12 - 2:16pm

    Richard, the question is biased because it includes a short argument against Gay marriage built into it! It also isn’t asking the question they will present it as asking (whether you support gay marriage); for example I support gay marriage but I’d almost answer yes to that question (the second, the first I’d probably answer no to); I don’t think either part of the statement are true, homosexuals don’t have the same rights currently and aren’t trying to redefine marriage for everyone just for themselves (anyone else can still get married just as before), but if they did and they were then I would answer yes. As such it’s playing on the fact that people don’t have all the facts. There is at least significant debate as to whether the statements the question gives as a premise are true, but not everyone reading the question will know this, which will bias the answers given.
    So to answer your question as to how we can define an unbaised question, we can’t formally define it (in fact the electoral commision spends ages working out the least biased question to ask when we have referendums), but for a start the question shouldn’t state as fact something which would be widely disputed, or that whilst true represents only one side of the argument. Ideally it should avoid stating facts as much as possible, so a question like; “Do you support the current governments proposals to legalise Homosexaul Marriage; Yes, No, Don’t Know.” The only facts in that are that the government has proposals to legalise Homosexual marriage, something fairly indisputable. Either of the questions you suggest are also better than the one they actually asked – although as you point out adding “each other” to the first might make it clearer.

    And I think your suggestion that things look biased depending on the opinion your coming from holds some weight but not as much as you might think, in the same way that I think the question above is biased, I would not trust results that came from a survey that asked;
    “Since the state currently discriminates against homosexuals by not allowing them to marry as heterosexual couples can, should legislation be passed to rectify this inequality?”
    I think that’s a fairly good description of the current situation, but it’s undoubtedly just as biased a question as the one above, because it presents an argument for one side. It also states as fact that the current situation is discriminatory and unequal, something I believe but others might not (for the reasons listed in the question they did ask, regarding Civil Ceremonies).
    As for Lynne’s comments, they are biased, but they aren’t trying to be unbiased, as opinion polls are (or at least should be).

  • Scott Berry 28th Feb '12 - 2:24pm

    On another note – is anyone else worried how many Lib Dem voters agreed with both questions (in fact in the first question we were the biggest agreers of the three main parties)! Admittedly we did better than both other parties in the second question.

  • Just to be clear, the Coalition for Marriage also contains a factual inaccuracy in that there are important distinctions between Marriage and Civil Partnerships. This is evidenced by this answer from Hansard, 2008:

    The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, while Article 8 of the European convention provides mainly for privacy in the home and Article 14 provides for non-discrimination, Article 12 provides for a view of marriage between a man and woman and of family life that is basic to the existence and continuation of any society?

    Lord Bach: My Lords, Article 12 speaks for itself. Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and found a family according to the national laws governing the exercise of that right. When we passed the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, we made a distinction in it and did not call single-sex partnerships marriage. In many important ways, it was very similar, particularly in the many legal rights that it quite rightly gave to single-sex partnerships, but it did not call those partnerships marriage, and that remains the Government’s policy.

    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200708/ldhansrd/text/81023-0001.htm

  • Malcolm Todd 28th Feb '12 - 4:01pm

    Whilst I’m all in favour of allowing people to marry people of the same sex if they want to, I confess I’m a little confused on this point:
    If we don’t insist that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, on what basis do we insist that it can only be between two people, regardless of sex? Why is discrimination against homosexual partnerships wrong, but discrimination against polygamous partnerships acceptable?

  • Andreas Christodoulou 28th Feb '12 - 4:13pm

    Malcolm,

    Because marriage or civil partnership brings with it legal rights and tax benefits, such as the right to move capital itemms at no initial taxable value. Also what about the decision on medical treatment if one partner cannot make decisions and two other partners disagree?

    I have no problem with polygamous relationships ,but legally recognising them is bordering on impossible.

  • Other than the ‘right to be legally married’ (@Liberal Neil), what rights do civil partnerships not confer which marriage does? I am personally not yet convinced that there is any legal discrimination taking place by not having gay marriages. The argument instead seems to be about the state recognising a couple as married, which must mean you think the normative role of the state is to assign value to relationships, which to a liberal is not necessarily that attractive an idea. We’re meant to be wary of the state deciding deepest personal values! If there is no disadvantage in law (in terms of benefits, pension rights, etc) then why do I need the state to tell me how valuable my personal relationships are?

    Lynne does presuppose a view of marriage which some/many people would disagree with. The Coalition for Marriage seem quite clear that they see marriage as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others” (from their website). They are objectively correct that that is the historic, legal definition in Britain whether we like it or not. So any departure from that (which gay marriage would be) is, ipso facto, a redefinition of marriage. That doesn’t of course mean it is wrong to redefine it, and perhaps it should always have been more open, but it is still redefining it.

    If you want to maintain the view that people can define marriage how they want (a very respectable liberal position) – so therefore the Coalition for Marriage can define it as heterosexual, and others can include homosexual partnerships as marriages – then actually state recognition of gay marriage is the wrong step. If you genuinely want people to enjoy equal legal rights, but allow individuals and groups to define what is and is not a marriage, then you need to separate the two. So really, liberals should be calling for marriage as a legal institution to be abolished and all partnerships to be civil, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Religious groups, and any other social group or individuals, can therefore go their own way in defining when that civil partnership is a ‘marriage’ or not.

  • Peter Ellis 28th Feb '12 - 5:06pm

    So really, liberals should be calling for marriage as a legal institution to be abolished and all partnerships to be civil, whether homosexual or heterosexual. Religious groups, and any other social group or individuals, can therefore go their own way in defining when that civil partnership is a ‘marriage’ or not.

    I agree with this in every proviso except one: the name. “Marriage” as a concept and a word predates the religious use of the term. Religious groups have no right to it. So, by all means let there be one form of civil union – and it should be called “marriage”. If religious groups want to have their own, more exclusive form of partnership, then they can do so, and pick a different word for it. For Christians, the obvious choice would be “Holy Matrimony”.

  • Guy Patching 28th Feb '12 - 6:15pm

    Hi Richard. Yes my answer has my own personal bias, I don’t deny that but I am making my points. I’m glad you’ve challenge to me to write an unbiased question, and I have struggled with this for all of the time it takes me to type the following:

    “Do you favour changing the law to allow two people of the same sex to have a marriage, rather than the current law that allows only civil unions between people of the same sex?” Answers either as “Yes” or “No.”

    Sure, its not perfect perhaps, and might take a little tweaking from professional pollsters but in around half a minute I’ve scaled down the bias by merely just trying to get the answer to a question rather than the answer I want. My question doesn’t include anything that is in dispute, where the question above does.

    By way of contrast would argue that the above question is more biased than the following:

    “Owing to the fact we only called them ‘civil unions’ in the first place because a few religious nutjobs got their panties in a twist, do you favour adhering to the principle of equal rights and allowing single sex couples to get married?”

  • Holly Matthies 28th Feb '12 - 9:07pm

    There are several points of fact I’m not seeing addressed here.

    It is not accurate for the poll or commenters to state that same-sex couples are entitled to all the rights that couples who can marry are. I’ve heard stuff like pensions, inheritance and custody of children mentioned as examples, as well as the international recognition Richard Gadsden mentions).

    It is also worth mentioning that if a person who wishes to transition is in a marriage or civil partnership, they must under the current system get divorced or have their civil partnership dissolved in order to obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate and legally change their gender, at which point they can now have whichever of marriage or civil partnership is now approriate to the genders of them and their partner. This process incurs a lot of expense, hassle and emotional distress, which is completely unnecessary.

    Also, not everyone is either heterosexual or homosexual: as a bisexual person I’m baffled that the rights in which I’m entitled to if I want to marry a woman are different than they’d be if I wanted to marry a man. This really highlights how ludicrous the “separate but equal” thing is not equal at all. What we’re talking about here is not special rights for those uppity gays, but equal rights for everybody.

  • Stuart Mitchell 28th Feb '12 - 9:59pm

    Richard: “The legal difference is that, in other countries that have both marriages and civil unions, a UK Civil Partnership is recognised as a civil union (and it has less legal rights).”

    But surely those other countries can simply choose not to recognise same-sex marriages if they wish to.

    Guy: ““Do you favour changing the law to allow two people of the same sex to have a marriage, rather than the current law that allows only civil unions between people of the same sex?”

    That sounds quite biased to me – the use of the word “only” implies that an answer of “No” would be tantamount to continuing to fob off gay people with something inferior.

    There seems to be an obvious solution here. Why not simply rename civil partnerships as “civil marriages”? People seem more hung about choice of words here than any actual legal difference. As for “equal marriage”, that will NEVER be on the table, so long as we are prepared to allow authorised celebrants to discriminate against gay people.

    Malcolm: You are right. There are plenty of other forms of discrimination in the marrige laws – discrimination against certain foreign nationals, people who wish to marry certain relatives (genetic or adopted), not to mention differences in marriage age between different parts of the UK.

  • @Peter Ellis
    “Marriage” as a concept and a word predates the religious use of the term”
    I’m curious, how can you know that for certain? People have been worshipping gods (i.e. practicing religion) for a very long time. As there is so much we don’t know (pre-history) then how can you be 100% sure of the statement (although of course it does pre-date Christianity).

    @Liberal Neil
    “Your wider point about the historic definition of marriage doesn’t stand.”

    I think it does stand actually, the central tenet (in Christianity anyway) was that marriage was between one man and one woman, the things you mention were just legal consequences of the union.

    “Well if the state confers the right to be ‘married’ on some couples but not on others then the state is discrimninating between them.”

    The ECHR doesn’t think so, it believes that the article 12 was only intended to cover marriage between men and women. This (I believe) means that a gay couple could not use a claim of discrimination to allow them to marry.

    Actually, I think I agree with Oranjepan. Something needs to be refined as opposed to being redefined, otherwise you’ll take for ever to work out which is the least illiberal option.

  • There’s an art, if not a science, in asking unbiased questions and plenty of literature available for anyone who can be bothered to look. To my mind (and I studied the subject at postgrad level) the question is unnceessarily complicated and proabably biased. Guy Patching’s suggestion, although not perhaps perfect, is far preferable.

  • To the ppl arguing that there’s no difference between civil partnerships and marriage I’d say… then what are you so bothered about? If they are no different surely you can’t have any objection to the change? Unless of course you believe that ‘separate but equal’ is the way to go, just like they did in the southern United States before the civil rights movement.

  • Jennie Rigg 29th Feb '12 - 2:53pm

    “Owing to the fact we only called them ‘civil unions’ in the first place because a few religious nutjobs got their panties in a twist, do you favour adhering to the principle of equal rights and allowing single sex couples to get married?”

    Indeed.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Feb '12 - 3:22pm

    Liberal Neil

    The historic definition of marriage was that a wife was the property of her husband.

    The statements recorded as being made by Jesus on sexuality are few and gnomic – notably nothing at all on homosexuality, which one might suppose rather remiss if as some who call themselves “Christians” claim “God hates fags”. Nevertheless, what is recorded and in other early Christian writing is very much a rejection of marriage as a property relationship, and instead the establishing of it as “two become one body”. Now we are used to that notion it is perhaps difficult to see how radical this way of thinking would have been seen then. That marriage has tended to revert to being seen as a property relationship is more an aspect of how Christianity in practice was not able to throw off existing social mores – we can see this even more so in modern Islam.

    If one wishes to challenge the idea amongst some Christians that “marriage” must be between a man and a woman, pone could investigate various metaphorical uses of the term in Christian tradition. A man or woman entering a religious order, for example, goes through a ceremony which has conscious echoes of a marriage ceremony.

    Underneath, the problem would seem to be one of semantics. The argument about whether “civil partnership” confers the same rights as marriage seems to me to be a side issue because, unless I have got it wrong, the real issues is that those calling for gay marriage will not be satisfied with anything other than the actual word “marriage” being used – merely having exactly the same rights but not the same word is not enough. Countering this, the traditionalists would say that historically “marriage” has meant a relationship between a man and a woman, so even if you did have something between two people of the same sex which conferred exactly the same legal rights to call it a “marriage” would in effect meaning changing the meaning of a word by legislation.

  • Ian Sheppard 5th Mar '12 - 11:58am

    I think this question about this question illustrates the weakness and unreliability of opinion polls. I approach them with scepticism and suspicion for this very reason. Usually I get part way through and then hit the “delete” button in disgust. I view any Government referendum in the same light – the ones we have had here on a North East Assembly, and elected Mayors v Council Leaders being good cases in point.

  • Scott Berry 5th Mar '12 - 3:42pm

    Moving away from the debate about the merits of this change (which I’m quite shocked liberals are having – surely letting people define their marriage as they want is more liberal, this is a step in that direction).
    The above poll isn’t the most biased ever, mainly because this one is;
    http://www.comres.co.uk/poll/556/premier-media-gay-marriage-poll.htm
    Even before the fact that’s it’s often quoted without mentioning that it’s only of Church Going Christians, that it’s conducted by voluntary online polling (so only people with strong feelings answer, and the position in the church varies from don’t care to opposed), it then weights Anglican’s too lightly (or so I’m told, I must admit I don’t know on this one), and more importantly, before asking Q3 on voting intention, slips in Q2, a list of arguments against gay marriage.
    Interestingly the second question (that’s never quoted because it was only put in to bias the third question) does show that 93% of respondants have no idea what they are talking about, saying they are concerned about the current legislation because; “ministers will have to conduct gay marriages against their conscience” which simply isn’t the proposal the Tories have. I also think that reason is possibly the only valid one against gay marriage (were it true) and surely will bias peoples responses purely because they don’t know what policy they are expressing approval or disaproval for (not that this is a sign of bias, just a sign of people need to research more before answering questions).

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