Sunday, December 6, 2009

Personal Observations on the Munk Debate Results.

I just wanted to provide a quick update (heavily flavoured with my opinion) of last night’s Munk Debate. If you weren’t able watch, you really missed out on a sensational, entertaining, raucus event. Even I was surprised at the level of passion the debaters showed last night, as well as the level of attacks, some of which were quite personal. For me, that was unexpected.

At the outset of the event, they live audience (where the debate was being held) were polled about the resolution: "That climate change is mankind’s defining crisis, and requires a commensurate response". 61% agreed with the resolution, while 31% disagreed (presumably leaving 8% undecided). 79% of the audience indicated that their opinion could still be changed.

Elizabeth May and George Monbiot were the debaters for the PRO side of the resolution, while Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson were on the CON side. It looked like Lomborg and Lawson were facing a moderately hostile audience, and would have their work cut out for them.

At this point in the debate (before it began), I turned to the person sitting beside me and expressed my concern about the 61% number. A very recent Harris-Decima poll had come out the day before, asking a quite similar question of the Canadian public at large. Harris-Decima’s results were a little higher than those in attendance: just under 66% of Canadians believed climate change to be our defining crisis.

Maybe the audience wasn’t as "hostile" to the CON side as might be expected.

At the end of the debate, the audience was polled again, in an effort to determine which side "won" the debate, based on changed opinions. The final results: 56% agreed with the resolution, while 44% disagreed (no undecided).

This works out to a change of 5% for those who had "decided" that they agreed with the resolution. The CON side, though, benefited from an overall increase of 13%, which accounts for the 5% shift from the PRO side, and took all 8% of the undecided.

Now, this doesn’t mean that every undecided individual cast their vote for the CON side at the end of the debate; but if they didn’t, there was likely a larger shift in the PRO side numbers. I speculate that’s what happened, but the fact is we’ll never know.

Anyway, the result of the debate is quite clear to me: with the shift to the CON side of 13%, it is clear to me that the CON side is able to boast that they "won" the debate. And boast I’m sure they shall.

Admittedly, had I been one of those polled in the audience, I would have identified my own support for the PRO side, and indicated that my opinion could not be shaken. Watching last night’s debate, my own opinion was only reinforced by the discussions. So do keep in mind my own bias when I say that I’m not sure what debate these 13% were watching to arrive at the conclusion that the CON side presented the better arguments. They did not. And Elizabeth and George did quite a bit to diffuse those arguments, including a fairly personal attack on Bjorn by Elizabeth, which may have been over the top (although her issue with Bjorn’s lack of concern about stimulus spending is a good one: if he’s so damn caught up in these other issues, why hasn’t he been raising a stink about all of this stimulus money being spent which doesn’t address these other big issues? Maybe because it’s "all about" climate change to him after all!).

One thing during the debate struck me as odd (and admittedly, I was viewing this on a webcast, so my observations might not reflect what was really happening). Bjorn received a heck of a lot of applause fairly early on from an audience who was 61% in favour of the Resolution. More than Elizabeth and George received. Maybe there were just a few supporters of Bjorn’s in the audience making a lot of noise, maybe his arguments were having an immediate impact on people’s decision making. I don’t know. And I won’t know.

But what I do know is that the format for obtaining a "winner" in this debate is one which is easily tampered with. Tickets were sold out for this event very quickly. If they were snapped up by CON side supporters, the initial audience vote on the Resolution clearly could have been tainted if the CONs voted PRO, only to reverse themselves on the final vote so that a CON "victory" could result. It’s easy to manipulate. I say this tongue-in-cheek: I’m sure that none of the PRO side supporters would have engaged in such shenanigans.

So, when the climate change deniers trot this result out to bolster their own case, take it with a super-huge grain of salt. The process for obtaining a "winner" was anything but a secure process.

In defence of the Munk Debates, no one associated with the debate ever used the term "winner" or "loser" with reference to this process (at least not that I observed), likely because they understood very well the flaws inherent in the process. Having said that, though, by setting things up this way, clearly one side would be able to "claim victory" over the other. And in last night’s debate, the CONS won it at least one "con" of their own (and I’m not talking about vote-rigging here; I’m talking about the continual con they try to pull over people’s eyes about the science of climate change...which is a much bigger con than having a few a supporters switch their votes).

If you are able, listen to or watch the debate. It really is a must-see. But do expect to experience a fair degree of frustration!

Steve May, CEO Sudbury Federal Green Party Association

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