Should pollsters ask ‘offensive’ questions?

Yesterday the Fairfax broadsheets published some Roy Morgan research on attitudes to homosexuality, including responses to the proposition ‘I believe homosexuality is immoral’. In the Age’s letters page, Benjamin John Doherty objects:

AS A gay man, I find it offensive and astonishing that Roy Morgan Research could ask such a leading question as whether people believe homosexuality is immoral, and then have the results used for serious political analysis.

Gay people are born gay, a simple fact that some heterosexual people seem to have profound difficulties getting their heads around. …

If Mr Morgan and his researchers went around asking people if they thought it was ”immoral” to be white-skinned, Aboriginal or to have red hair, the outcry would be swift and loud, and the results would be denounced as absurd.

Pollsters do actually write survey questions that could cause offence. 20 years ago in Perth a pollster put to its respondents the proposition that ‘most Aborigines are dirty and unkept’ (45% agreed). A 2001 survey asked for responses to the proposition that ‘all races of people are equal’ (12% said no).

This is all legitimate research – pollsters exist to report opinion, whatever it might be. All the major religions in Australia currently or traditionally view homosexual acts as immoral, and that’s the view the Morgan question is alluding to. It’s a little clumsy in blurring desires which are hardwired with actions that are choices (which may be why it gets slightly lower negative results than other questions which specify actions). But for tracking broad opinion trends over time the question is good enough.

14 thoughts on “Should pollsters ask ‘offensive’ questions?

  1. I’m very very uncomfortable with this trend to ” its all biologically determined” so you can’t discriminate.

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  2. I totally agree, fxh.

    People into BDSM aren’t precluded from marriage, even though their sexual behaviour is a choice. Nor are people that like watersports. For the practical purposes of political debate “morality” of particular sexual practices shouldn’t matter. Because politically people don’t care about the sex acts you perform, it’s just a matter of the gender you perform them with. Which makes it a matter of equality.

    I am a gay man and I’m still not convinced by the science on “genetic homosexuality”. I think sexuality is too complex to be JUST nature or nurture. Perhaps there is a large “choice” factor (though I’d say it’s volition, rather than choice, because the choice if there is one, is unconscious in my own experience). But who gives a toss if it is a choice? It’s politically convenient for sexuality to be a biological reality like race is, but it shouldn’t be relevant.


  3. ‘I’m very very uncomfortable with this trend to ” its all biologically determined” so you can’t discriminate.’

    I’m not sure that this is the argument on marriage. It’s an argument on morality, which involves choice. It doesn’t make sense to describe the fact of having homosexual desires as ‘immoral’ whether it is genetic (Doherty) or epigenetic (Shem).

    However the fact that something doesn’t involve choice does not get us anywhere in itself on the morality of behaviour. There are plenty of ‘natural’ urges (rape, paedophilia, bestiality) that presumably Mr Doherty like most people believes should be prohibited.


  4. “I am a gay man and I’m still not convinced by the science on “genetic homosexuality”. ”
    You shouldn’t be, because whatever the genetic component happens to be, it’s probably not especially big — there are studies looking at identical twins now, and it isn’t the case that if one is gay the other will be also (unfortunately, the data is mess, so lots of different numbers are reported — but the reports of how big the genetic component is go from zero to around 30% if I remember correctly)


  5. I’m Bi. I like Shem’s idea of possible unconscious choice. I hate it when people claim as fact that people are born with their sexuality. It might not be true and it’s like saying that, well if gay/bi/whatever had a choice, then it might be okay to hate them. Choice or no choice, I love who I am, and even through hard times, have never wanted to change. If some people think that’s immoral then that’s their problem.

    I would never have a state sanctioned marriage and don’t think that the government should recognise any relationship at all. Otherwise you’re just coercing others to recognise something that they might not believe in. But it is very hypocritical to claim that both straight and gay couples should be able to get married but to exclude all other forms of relationships. What is wrong with marrying two or more people?

    Political correctness has gone crazy. It seems that people believe the truth should be suppressed just in case it upsets anyone. Negative attitudes towards good people are real, I’d rather know about it than in live in oblivion. Seems that PC is a further extension of the nanny-state, to protect people from the big bad opinions in the world.


  6. @conrad: Wikipedia has a summary of some of these studies.
    It seems that the actual results vary from about 0%-40% depending on the study. This would seem to suggest that a fair portion of homosexuals (and also some portion of hetrosexuals) have a genetic tendancy towards homosexuallity, but that psychological factors in their life are probably the larger factor.

    Which also suggests that careful psychological work would be capable of changing someone’s sexual preferences (at least in some cases), which many homosexual men that consider acting on their urges to be immoral would probably appreciate. (Of course such a suggestion is very non-politically correct)


  7. Fully appreciate it’s not my blog, but what’s wiv all these articles on gay-ness?
    I recognise I’m living in modern society, but i don’t think it’s healthy for men to be talking too much about these things.
    And antoher thing, what’s with all these contributors (commentators on this blog) lining up to be gay, bi, into BDSM, watersports, etc – I’m starting to think this is the blog for the Carlton Swingers Club?


  8. Doherty says:

    AS A gay man, I find it offensive and astonishing that Roy Morgan Research could ask such a leading question as whether people believe homosexuality is immoral, and then have the results used for serious political analysis.

    What he seems to find ‘offensive’ is not so much being asked whether he thinks homosexuality is immoral, but that the results of such a poll may be used for political purposes. He has cloaked his dislike of a potential conservative political agenda with the language of offence to give it more legitimacy.


  9. A leading question is one that suggests the answer; perhaps he is saying the question put words in respondent’s mouths (though the responses may have been worse if they had been asked to offer the own descriptions…).

    My guess is that it just struck a raw nerve with him, and that what follows is an attempt to find reasons that might persuade others that his offence warrants their concern.

    The poll result actually shows that a dwindling minority believe that homosexuality is immoral, so it serves a ‘progressive’ political cause.


  10. To return to the original topic, I think it’s legitimate for pollsters to ask offensive questions. Less so for them to ask leading questions. I don’t think this question was offensive or leading. The one about aboriginals was more offensive, still not really leading, though.

    Pollsters should be asking relevant questions. The morality of homosexuality isn’t really a political issue any more- homosexuality is legal and has been for some time. I guess it can be interesting to see the link between those that see homosexuality as immoral and those that are opposed to gay marriage, though. It seems that the last 30-40% of people need to be convinced of homosexuality’s morality (or morally neutral status) before they will support gay marriage.


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