Friday, October 22, 2004

Ignorance or Sins of Memory?

This corner of the blogosophere is abuzz with posts and more post (and still more) about the latest PIPA survey. In that survey, it was discovered that:

Even after the final report of Charles Duelfer to Congress saying that Iraq did not have a significant WMD program, 72% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq had actual WMD (47%) or a major program for developing them (25%). Fifty-six percent assume that most experts believe Iraq had actual WMD and 57% also assume, incorrectly, that Duelfer concluded Iraq had at least a major WMD program. Kerry supporters hold opposite beliefs on all these points.

Similarly, 75% of Bush supporters continue to believe that Iraq was providing substantial support to al Qaeda, and 63% believe that clear evidence of this support has been found. Sixty percent of Bush supporters assume that this is also the conclusion of most experts, and 55% assume, incorrectly, that this was the conclusion of the 9/11 Commission. Here again, large majorities of Kerry supporters have exactly opposite perceptions.

These are some of the findings of a new study of the differing perceptions of Bush and Kerry supporters, conducted by the Program on International Policy Attitudes and Knowledge Networks, based on polls conducted in September and October

Not only are Bush supporters ignorant of reality in general, but they are also ignorant of the reality of their own candidate, as this table shows:

Posted by Hello

Click for Larger View.

The second part of the survey, showing that Bush supporters don't know where he stands on some important issues, is interesting, but I'm not exactly sure how to explain it. I imagine a lot of credit for this widespread ignorance can be given to the Bush campaign for effectively hiding what it is that Bush thinks and does. A lot of credit probably goes to the desire to avoid cognitive dissonance, and the confirmation bias, as well. Many of the people who are ignorant about what Bush actually thinks are probably the sort of people who vote Republican in every election, and they have to work hard to justify that vote to themselves, even if it means distorting the views of Republican candidates to make them more consistent with their own.

To me, the first part is more interesting. Last Novemember I saw a talk* on false memories for events and facts about the Iraq war. The researchers asked American, German, and Australian students to report whether certain statements about the Iraq war were true or false. The found that most American students still believed long-since retracted news reports about, e.g., the discovery of WMD and connections between Iraq and Al Qaeda, while German and Australian students by and large recognized these statements as false. It is interesting that simply planting the seeds of these beliefs in the minds of most Americans is sufficient to have them believe it. Thus, the news stories, often reporting information directly from the Bush administration, about the discovery of WMD or Iraq-Al Qaeda connections served to create beliefs even as subsequent news reports retracted the earlier ones. This is the brilliance of the Republican Party in 2004. They recognize that they don't have to stick to the facts, but they don't have to lie either. All they have to do is make reports that are likely false, but are in accord with sketchy information, and even if it is later shown that the reports are in fact false, people will still believe them.

Why is it that Americans, in this study, were more gullible than Germans or Australians? I suspect that the opposite would have been the case had evidence of WMD and Iraq-Al Qaeda connections had been discovered. The early reports showing no connection would have been widely believed by Germans and Australians, who were primed by their anti-war attitudes to believe anti-war facts. Americans, in turn, primed by their pro-war sentiments, were more likely to believe information consistent with those sentiments. Such is the human mind. This is the reason that I am much less surprised than the other liberal bloggers seem to be at Republican ignorance. I know how susceptible we (as a group) are to such ignorance, as well. After all, Republicans are humanoids, sort of like us.

* I can't for the life of me remember who gave the talk. It was in one of the Saturday (morning, I think) memory sessions at the 2003 meeting of the Psychonomic Society, in Vancouver. Maybe someone who reads this blog (yeah right) was there, and saw the talk, or has a schedule from the conference, and can tell me who the hell gave it.


Anonymous said...

Several people made similar arguments to what you did. My favorite is Kaimi over at Tutissima Cassis. I think in general people are not interested in news and the news most have isn't exactly well designed to inform people. It's sad, since I think by and large democracy requires an informed electorate. But it is boring to most people and the fact is that many issues are difficult to get any kind of clear position on, even for intelligent people. So you get people, news, and politicians doing the talking-points bit with most people only tuning in every now and then.

I also think the questions in this poll were very poorly phrased and probably designed to produce the conclusions many have been bringing up. I recall an equally problematic poll from a few months back suggesting conservatives were better informed than liberals. In general though, as you suggest, people are people.

I think there are some huge problems in government and media. But I tend to think the problems people keep harping at are either misunderstandings or pseudo-problems at best. 

Posted by Clark Goble

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I agree with Tutissima's analysis of the surveys questions, though I agree that it's difficult to interpret the results. However, combined with the study (I really wish I could remember whose it was), and a few previous surveys showing similar results, I tend to think that the results are at least somewhat accurate. It's not surprising, either. Incumbents don't have to spend as much time spelling out their positions, so their supporters may not be as knowledgable. Challengers, on the other hand, must continually say what their positions are, and highlight the differences between their positions and the incumbents, so their supporters are likely to be a little more knowledgable.

I bet I could spend an hour or two and come up with a survey on which Democrats and Kerry supporters would look ignorant, and Republicans/Bush supporters wouldn't. We all have our blind spots. 

Posted by Chris