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Water bottles: How a misleading poll got it wrong

Published: December 5, 2008
Section: Opinions


A few months ago the student body of Brandeis University was presented a poll for the reduction in the consumption of bottled water. The poll questioned, “Recognizing the social, environmental, and economic implications of bottled water, should Brandeis University reduce the sale and distribution of bottled water on campus?” The response in the affirmative for this poll was astounding; according to the student union 80.3% of respondents voted YES on the poll question. Environmental activists on campus took this as an affirmation that their actions will be supported by the majority of the student body. Union President Jason Gray declared, “On a personal level, I’m proud that so many students are in favor of making a reduction to create a culture of conservation on this campus.” Matt Schmidt, President of SEA (Students for Environmental Action) was quoted as saying, “The results speak for themselves, and we hope that they translate to some direct policy action by this administration.” However, is that really what this water bottle poll told us? Was this water bottle poll even legitimate? The answer of course is no, this poll was scientifically and politically illegitimate. This poll amounts to nothing more than a moral blank check for environmental activists on campus to do as they see fit to move their agenda forward while claiming to have the backing of the student body.

Looking at the question posed, there are two parts, a preceding statement and a question. I will go straight to the problem with the poll, the root question, “Should Brandeis University reduce the sale and distribution of bottled water on campus?” The answer to this question is yes, Brandeis University should reduce the sale and distribution of bottled water, and in fact this should be true with the whole nation, even the whole world. Water bottles negatively effect the environment and their sale and distribution should be reduced. While we are at it I think most Americans agree we need to reduce the number of abortions taking place in the United States and the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. should be reduced as well. The problem is that while pro-choice activists want to reduce the number of abortions, their belief of how to do that differs greatly from pro-life activists. The same goes for those who support tougher immigration action versus those who prefer amnesty for illegals. Going back to the water bottle poll, it is simply too vague to be considered legitimate. Everyone agrees that we need to reduce water bottle sale and distribution on campus, but everyone has their own idea how to do so, just as with all issues. Simply asking people if they believe pollution is a problem does not constitute a just cause of action in the pursuit of rectifying that problem. It only amounts to a moral blank check for environmental activists such as the members of SEA to push policy on the students of Brandeis that they may have serious contentions with.

A second problem with this poll is that the responses were voluntary. Student’s voluntary went onto the student union webpage to vote in the poll, which allowed many students to opt out of taking it. This favors representation of environmental activists in the responses because they will be more motivated to vote yes on the poll. However, people who would vote no are less motivated and so they will not vote in the poll at all resulting in their underrepresentation in the poll. As any respected pollster would tell you, letting participants opt out of a poll would skew the results making them inaccurate. Even worse is that only about 40% of students voted in the poll anyway and of those 40%, 20% still voted no. This means that from this poll we can only assess that 32% of the student body is actually in favor of this initiative. When the Justice asked SEA president Matt Schmidt about the poll, he stated about the results, “80 percent said yes; to me, that’s a mandate.” However, 32% of students definitively favoring this initiative is no mandate; it is not even a definite approval. These polls results can simply not be taken seriously due to the ability for many students to opt out of it combined with the low turnout. Had President Schmidt stood in Shapiro with this poll and asked twenty random students this question, the results would have been much more accurate and legitimate.

If the Student Union and SEA would like to ask students about specific policy toward water bottle sale and distribution reduction then they can take the time to brainstorm ideas and then present those ideas in a poll. The Student Union and SEA can work to reduce the sale and distribution of bottled water on campus, however trying to get the students of Brandeis to sign a moral blank check is not a proper means to this end. This poll should not be considered a legitimate reason for any specific policy action to reduce bottled water sale and distribution. Many students do probably want to see a reduction in water bottle sale and distribution, but it is probable that many want to achieve this through consumer choice, not policy mandates.