A recent report by polling company Pew Research appears to show that there has been growing support for same-sex marriage over the last 10 years. This is unsurprising, given factors such as the media bias on the issue (see last week’s CNN segment with Piers Morgan and Ryan Anderson for just one example), President Obama and Vice-President Biden supporting it, and the growing number of celebrities and public figures in favour.

According to the report, 14% of Americans have changed their minds and now support same-sex marriage. These people were asked to give reasons for why they changed their minds.

The most common reason given (32% of those who changed minds) was that they know someone who is homosexual. Republican Senator Rob Portman, who a few weeks ago said he supported same-sex marriage because of his son who is homosexual, is an example of this. But this is hardly a reason for supporting same-sex marriage. Firstly, many homosexuals oppose same-sex marriage, and secondly the issue is not whether or not we should love homosexuals, but rather what marriage is, and whether or not same-sex marriage is beneficial for society.

The rest of the reasons given were almost all just meaningless platitudes. They ranged from “I’ve grown more open” to “it’s inevitable,” “the world is different now,” and “I believe in equal rights.”

What is common to all these reasons is that they are so superficial. It is significant that nothing along the lines of “I’ve thought about the meaning of marriage and realised it is unjust not to allow same-sex couples to marry” or “I’ve realised same-sex marriage would benefit society” made the list. This just goes to show that support for same-sex marriage tends to be based more on emotion rather than reason. This is cause for hope among supporters of traditional marriage, as we know that there is no intellectual drive behind growing support for same-sex marriage. All that is required is to turn public opinion around again is to convert the intellectual case for traditional marriage into accessible, understandable arguments.

Another interesting thing to note from the report was that the wording of questions in opinion polls matters on this topic. “Do you think it should be legal or illegal for gay and lesbian couples to get married?” saw 58% of people respond in the affirmative, whereas when the question was phrased “Do you favor or oppose allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry?” under 50% of people said yes. Obviously, it is ridiculous to suggest the issue is about whether or not same-sex marriage should be illegal, as no one is arguing that people who get dressed up and participate in a same-sex wedding should go to jail. What is being debated is the legal definition of marriage.

Note that both of the above questions are skewed towards same-sex marriage anyway, as they focus on the issue from the perspective of same-sex couples, and not on marriage itself. If the question was “Do you support redefining marriage to be between any two consenting adults?” or “Are you satisfied with the traditional definition of marriage?” the responses would likely be very different.

This also applies to questions surrounding same-sex parenting. The Pew Research poll asked respondents if they supported the statement “Same-sex couples can be as good parents as heterosexual couples” to which 63% of respondents agreed. But this statement is completely unclear. It could mean that the best same-sex parents can be as good as the worst heterosexual parents, it could mean that on average same-sex couples are as good parents, it could mean in theory same-sex parents can be as good parents, and so on. The responses are problematic and for all intents and purposes meaningless.

The results would likely be very different if the question was, for example, “Do you think mother and fathers contribute different things to a child’s upbringing?” or “Do you think ideally a child should be raised by its biological mother and father?”

This is seen in polling around the world. Depending on how opinion poll questions are phrased, different conclusions about social attitudes can be drawn. This is because the concept of same-sex marriage is a complex issue and there are such different ways of looking at it.

It is important that we remain sceptical of opinion polls which appear to show that the marriage debate is over. It is even more important that we continue to ignore people who claim same-sex marriage is inevitable, as attempts to stifle rational debate on such an important issue deserve no respect.

Blaise Joseph is a third-year commerce student at the University of New South Wales with a strong interest in social policy. Blaise is originally from Canberra, the centre of politics and the public...