Below you will find a statement signed by a number of Hungarian sociologists who strongly object to the questionnaire the Hungarian government designed for the alleged purpose of gauging Hungarian public attitude toward refugees and immigrants. The twelve questions can be found in an earlier post.
Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, wrote about this questionnaire on Facebook:
Public consultation can be an important tool for governments and other public authorities to develop policies that can count on support of the population. In this context, it is entirely up to the Hungarian authorities if they want to consult the people on migration. But a public consultation based on bias, on leading and even misleading questions, on prejudice about immigrants can hardly be considered a fair and objective basis for designing sound policies. Framing immigration in the context of terrorism, depicting migrants as a threat to jobs and the livelihood of people, is malicious and simply wrong – it will only feed misconceptions and prejudice. It will create and fuel negative attitudes towards minorities and it will stimulate confrontation between different groups in society. It is wilfully misleading to present migrants only as a burden to our economies and societies, without any mention of their contribution. When we address the many challenges posed by migration today, we must look at the issue in a frank, open and balanced way. We should not close our eyes to the sometimes serious challenges posed by migration in our societies. But in doing so, we should never lose sight of our fundamental values and of the need to preserve a pluralist and diverse society, based on mutual respect and equal treatment of every individual.
Professionals familiar with designing public opinion surveys agree and strongly object to this kind of manipulation.
Anyone who’s interested in joining the undersigned can add his or her signature to the list of names below at http://www.peticiok.com/tarsadalomkutatok_a_nemzeti_konzultaciorol
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Social scientists on the National Consultation
The questionnaire for the National Consultation about “immigration and terrorism” – posted on the Hungarian government’s webpage with the intention of being mailed to all citizens in the coming weeks -, similarly to previous consultations of this sort, is a tool of political mobilization concealed as public opinion research. Even if we ignored the widely disputed substantive content of the questions, it remains apparent that the questionnaire was put together in total disregard of the methodological canons of public opinion research. We understand that the authors of the questionnaire did not intend to play by the rules of scholarly research, but we feel obliged to bring the attention of the public to the unprofessional, manipulative character of the questions.
- The questionnaire adopts a graded response scale, which is characteristic for public opinion surveys. Such response scales can use even- or odd-number response options, but must maintain neutrality and balance with respect to the statement that they record the responses to. The response scales used in the planned “National Consultation” do not comply with this requirement. They also offer three response options, but the middle one is not a neutral (e.g. “neither agree nor disagree”) option but a hesitant approval. Thus, if undecided respondents tick this middle option, or some respondents pick their responses at random, they both help to make the statement in the question – invariably the policy opinion adopted by the government – appear to be the choice of the majority, even if that was not the case.
- It is standard practice in public opinion research to introduce questions by saying that “Some people think … [something], while others think … [the opposite]”. This is useful because it assures respondents who may be hesitant to state their true opinion that both sides of the given argument are legitimate opinions. It is also important to phrase the alternatives in a balanced way that does not artificially make one opinion more attractive than the other irrespectively of agreement or disagreement with its substance. The questionnaire of the National Consultation does not meet this requirement because all three questions that start by saying “that some people say” identify only one alternative, which always coincides with the prime minister’s position about the subject matter. It is well-documented in studies of public opinion that asking for the expression of agreement/disagreement with only side of an argument facilitates ‘yeah-saying’ (acquiescence bias) among weakly committed respondents and thus distorts our picture about true public opinion.
- It is well-known among public opinion researchers that the order and phrasing of the preceding questions can systematically shape the responses that one obtains to any question. The questionnaire of the National Consultation is suggestive from this point of view as well. Both its title and the first three questions link “profiteering immigrants” – a pejorative neologism for immigrants attracted by better economic opportunities away from their homeland – to the obviously negative phenomenon of terrorism, thus increasing the probability that the rest of the questionnaire will find negative attitudes toward immigrants.
- The perhaps most important requirement for a credible survey of public opinion is an appropriate sampling of respondents from the given population. Lay people often think that more respondents always mean a more accurate picture of public opinion, and National Consultations are often claimed to represent true public opinion on this account. But this is in fact a false belief and a large number of respondents in no way guarantees that the sample well represents the public at large. If respondents were not selected with rigorous scientific methods but rather by “self-selection,” then there is a high probability that their voice will represent those who had a strong opinion or emotion motivating them to respond. In the case of the National Consultation, in particular, it can be taken for granted that the self-selection will produce politically one-sided results, since it is the Prime Minister himself who asks citizens to respond to his questions.
- It further undermines the validity of the results of the National Consultation that the questionnaire does not query the socio-demographic characteristics of the respondents, i.e. it does not provide data about their sex, age, education, income position, etc. Thus there is no way that appropriate weighting procedures could statistically correct the inevitable but systematic shortcomings of any sampling procedure, or that serious analyses of the results could be attempted.
All in all, the National Consultation is not a public opinion poll. Although the Prime Minister’s invitation letter to citizens calls it a “consultation” that prepares the way for some policy decisions, all other appearances aim to reinforce the mistaken impression that the invitation is to a conventional public opinion survey. Yet the manipulative use of the tools and appearances of a public opinion poll by the National Consultation merely highlights the fact that genuine studies of public opinion that could help both decision makers and the public to find out public opinion about policy alternatives are in fact disappearing from the Hungarian public sphere. Such studies could only be carried out by credible researchers who comply with the professional and ethical norms of public opinion research. Only audited institutions complying with high scientific standards should be entrusted with studies of public opinion, with all contracts and resulting databases available for public scrutiny. The government could spend public money on such inquiries: hundreds of them would be financed from the billions spent on the fake national consultations.
Zoltán Balázs, university professor, Corvinus University
Iván Balog, sociologist, University of Szeged
Ildikó Barna, sociologist, ELTE
László Beck, sociologist, Medián
András Bíró-Nagy, research director, Policy Solutions
Balázs Böcskei, political scientist, ELTE
Zsolt Boda, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
József Böröcz, sociologist, Rutgers University
László Bruszt, university professor, European University Institute, Florence
György Csepeli, president of the Hungarian Association of Sociologists
Ágnes Darvas, sociologists, ELTE
Zsolt Enyedi, political scientist, Central European University
Zsuzsa Ferge, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Anikó Gregor, sociologist, ELTE
Endre Hann, social psychologist, Medián
István Hegedűs, sociologist, Hungarian-European Association
Béla Janky, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Budapest Engineering University
Angéla Kóczé, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Wake Forest University
Éva Kovács, sociologist, Budapest/Vienna
Balázs Krémer, sociologist, University of Debrecen
Zoltán Lakner, political scientist, ELTE
Orsolya Lelkes, sociologist, University of Vienna
Balázs Majtényi, ELTE
Béla Marián, unemployed public opinion researcher
Bálint Misetics, researcher, social policy
Antal Örkény, sociologist, ELTE
Ágnes Rényi, sociologist, ELTE
Péter Róbert, sociologist
Dániel Róna, political scientist, Covinus University
Ágota Scharle, economist, Budapest Institute
Endre Sík, sociologist, TÁRKI
Andrea Szabó, sociologist
Ildikó Szabó, professor emeritus, University of Debrecen
Mária Székelyi, professor emeritus, ELTE
Iván Szelényi, member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Pál Tamás, researcher, Corvinus University
Róbert Tardos, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, ELTE
Gábor Tóka, sociologist, Central European University
Csaba Tóth, director of strategy, Republikon Institute
Anna Unger, poliltical scientist, ELTE
Balázs Váradi, economist, ELTE
Mária Vásárhelyi, sociologist, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Anna Wessely, sociologist and historian of art, ELTE
Tibor Závecz, sociologist, Ipsos
János Zolnay, sociologist