Great Idea Reveals Interesting Bias

Through a long, and for some reason not unreproducible, chain of blog clicks–(here, here) I ended up on this page that’s suppose to graphically represent the amount of energy your appliances waste on standby versus utilize legitimately (you may have trouble running this page as it’s somewhat heavy, scripty, and quirky Flash).

Okay, setting aside the facts that this is obviously dated (inclusion of VCR as an appliance), inexact (they can’t really know the specifications of my appliances), and vivid green (the end calculation is number of trees “we” would have to plant to offset “your” carbon emissions), there are some other biases at work here that I think bear investigation.

First I think there’s an inherent “technology is bad” message here. I mean starting off with TV, that’s a giveaway right there. We all know TV is bad for you. You just didn’t know your TV is destroying the planet even when it’s not on. VCRs, well they’re the death of culture, right? The first technology that allowed us complete control of the content and timing of our faux social media interactions. Microwave? Obviously a radiation hazard and an insult to gourmands everywhere. And the cell phone, please, those things automatically lower your IQ 20 points and make you bark out disgusting personal details in public.

But the bias I’m really talking about here is the survey bias. Survey bias is one of those pivotal sociological issues that once you understand it, you never look at the world the same way again. Because you start asking questions like, why did they ask me this question in this fashion? What reaction do they expect from me based on this wording?

In this survey, the bias is most heavily felt in the restriction of response. Take a look at the maximum value for each of the four questions:

Hours per day of TV watched: 10
Videos per week watched: 10
Microwave use, times per week: 20
Cell phone charge attempts: 7

The response if you go over these limits is interesting: the graphic is replaced by a big, bold, “You’re Kidding, right?” As error messages go, this is among the more berating I’ve encountered.

One’s first reaction is to say, okay, maybe they’re just trying to make their point. If they let me use my appliances too much, the percentage of wasted energy gets too low. This is a classic kind of survey bias–rigging the questions to prove your point. Except they didn’t quite accomplish it, since if you manage to watch TV 9 or 10 hours per day, you apparently “waste” no electricity!

Fortunately, TV, VCR and phone charger weren’t an issue for me. I’m “okay” in the surveyor’s eyes on these topics. Where I fail, where the inherent survey bias really makes me feel like a miscreant, is on the Microwave question. My mental calculation was that I use the microwave four times a day every day of the week. I reheat coffee, cook vegetables, defrost things. It may not be four times every day, but some days it’s a lot more than that. It turns out the survey won’t even let you use your microwave three times a day. You’re kidding, right? But I can watch TV ten hours a day and you’re okay with that? Let me tell you, if you’re sitting around watching TV 10 hours a day every day, you’re using your microwave a lot more than 20 times a week, and that’s just on microwave popcorn.

So now I want to get inside the mind of the surveyor (who by the way is anonymous and utterly unreachable through this interface as far as I can tell). Who are they and who did they expect would be taking this survey? What must they think of the current state of western culture (and you’ve got to be fairly westernized to have a TV, a microwave and metered electricity) that they could believe that it’s possible to watch TV 10 hours a day but not to use a microwave more than twice a day?

Maybe it’s a “slow food” thing. Maybe they’re too busy planting trees to soak up all our carbon to stop and cook themselves a meal.

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