However, serious academic consideration of public opinion about fictitious issues did not start until the ’80s, when George Bishop and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati found that a third of Americans either favoured or opposed the fictitious Public Affairs Act. Bishop found that this figure dropped substantially when respondents were offered an explicit don’t know’ option. However, 10 per cent of respondents still selected a substantive answer, even when given a clear opportunity to express their lack of familiarity. Similar findings were reported in the US at around the same time by Howard Schuman and Stanley Presser, who also found that a third of respondents to their survey expressed positions on issues which, though real, were so obscure that few ordinary citizens would ever have heard of them.
One alternative would be an opinion poll. The drawback is that many “opinions” are invented on the spot to satisfy a pollster. Political scientist George Bishop once demonstrated this by asking people whether they favoured repeal of the “Public Affairs Act of 1975.” There was no such act. But thirty percent took the bait and offered an opinion. Bishop found that the less educated were more likely to claim an opinion.
Excerpt from: Head in the Cloud by William Poundstone