Stem Cell Research: The Usual Polling Bias, the Usual Biased Reporting

In her story today on the resumption of the debate on embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) in the House, Laurie Kellman of the Associated Press reports the following as fact:

Polls show Americans overwhelmingly support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. And scientists aren't sure that stem cells shed by a fetus and extracted from the surrounding fluid carry the same possibility for treatments and cures of diseases as those culled from embryos.

The facts are that:

  • At least one poll involved asked a misleading question to get a still-not-"overwhelming" result that does not support the characterization of "overwhelming support" she employs.
  • The poll's sample was skewed to Democrats and strong Democrats.
  • The "possibility for treatments" for stem cells obtained from amniotic fluid may have MORE disease-eliminating possibilities than those obtained from ESCR will ever have.

First, the poll (overview article; PDF from Ipsos):

  • It opened by asking a question about an unrelated matter with a "gimme" answer in terms of public opinion (not on sound economics) on whether the minimum wage should be raised (80% said yes, 18% no), influencing respondents to "think liberally."
  • The ESCR question that followed ("Should the government ease the restrictions on the use of federal money to research embryonic stem cells, or not?") does not match the reality of pending legislation in Congress, which is about REMOVING restrictions on the research (this link is one of many that notes Democrats' desire to "remove Bush administration restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research").
  • The sample was disproportionately skewed to Democrats (33% Dems, 27%, GOP, 27% independent, 13% none or didn't know). Additionally, Democrats sampled said they were "strongly" Democrat by a margin 2-1 (22% to 11%), while the strong-to-moderate ratio of Republicans was less that 1.5-1 (16% to 11%).

Even with all of these obvious biases, only 56% favored "easing restrictions" on ESCR and 43% opposed -- hardly the "overwhelming" result Ms. Kellman reported as fact. Perhaps Ms. Kellman was thinking of one of several other polls on stem cell research in the past that have not made a distinction between ESCR and "Adult" Stem Cell Research" (ASCR, which given the news about amniotic fluid, may need to be renamed). These polls have shown wider yes-no margins (including this one), but since they make no ESCR-ASCR distinction, they are in reality irrelevant.

(Aside: I also don't recall seeing "or not" added to a yes/no polling question in the past, and wonder if based on the overwhelming "yes" replies to the previous minimum wage question, whether adding those two words doesn't put the respondent on the defensive to answer "yes" again. People who know about polling psychology can hopefully shed more light on that in the comments.)

As to the science, , even ignoring the implications of taking human life inherent in current ESCR methodology, Ms. Kellman ignored the following shortcoming of stem cells currently obtained from ESCR that appear not to be an issue with those obtained from amniotic fluid:

The researchers have been able to successfully manipulate stem cells found in the amniotic fluid of a pregnant woman that have many properties of embryonic stem cells.

They have been able to grow the cells into various tissue types -- the big benefit often cited for embryonic cells -- but without the tumors that accompany the injected of embryonic cells or the destruction of human life needed to obtain them.

The widely-known tumor problem makes both Ms. Kellman's claim that "scientists aren't sure ..... "that amniotic stem cells ..... carry the same possibility," and a similar quote obtained from Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), misleading at best. As long as ESCR's tumor problem remains, its touted "potential" is very problematic. Amniotic cells can be seen to have MORE potential now because the tumor problem does not exist with them; therefore, there are fewer obstacles in the way of useful treatments.

To the extent that Ms. Kellman's article is taken at face value by House members as they debate the issue today, she will have injected false and questionable information into the debate.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.