The Western Front recently published results from a drug use survey that found an unbelievably high use of WWU student drug use. A few comments on the research methodology used by the Front are in order.
There are many ways that survey results can be biased, including sampling an unrepresentative sample of respondents. Because it is difficult to get all students to complete a survey, researchers survey a portion of the total population (a sample). In order to infer accurate findings about a population, researchers strive to make the sample ‘representative.’
Research has shown that people interested in a certain topic are more likely to participate in a survey about that topic. For example, let’s say that we asked Western students to complete a survey about fishing. One can imagine that fishing enthusiasts would be more likely to complete this survey than those who don’t fish. Consequently, findings would overstate the percentage of Western students that enjoy fishing. We believe a similar process led the Front to conclude that 75 percent of students use marijuana.
To find more plausible estimates, we turn to The National College Health Assessment (NCHA) which is annually administered to a random sample of Western students. It’s a comprehensive survey covering topics such as the use of seatbelts, diet, and mental health. Participation is encouraged via incentives such as gift cards. These factors generate results that are much more representative of Western students. The latest results from this survey show that 32.5 percent of respondents used marijuana in the past 30 days—less than half of that reported by the Front. Likewise, the NCHA finds 7.9 percent, and 15.2 percent have ever used cocaine and MDMA, respectively—both estimates much lower than those reported by the Front.
The Western Front infographic on student drug use is based on severely flawed survey research methodology, and the findings are inconsistent with all other data (and common sense) on this topic. We want to make sure that Western students receive correct information about student behavior–including the large portion of students who use no drugs at all.
Journalism holds its practitioners to “principles of — truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness and public accountability,” according to Wikipedia. Sadly, these standards were ignored in this case. We see no evidence that steps were taken to verify the accuracy of the results or that the Front reviewed other research to corroborate their findings.
For a more thorough review: http://wp.wwu.edu/osr/2016/06/03/western-front-reports-unbelievably-high-drug-use/
John M. Krieg, Ph.D.
Director, Office of Survey Research
Professor of Economics
Research Associate, Office of Survey Research
Research Analyst, Office of Survey Research