Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, April 27, 2004
The eye of the beholder

I'm late as usual to noticing this, but Brian Leiter and Alas, a Blog have picked up on the most recent poll demonstrating how shamefully ill-informed most Americans are, especially those that lean to the right.
A majority of Americans still believes Saddam Hussein was in cahoots with al-Qa'ida and that Iraq either had weapons of mass destruction or a programme for developing them, according to a new opinion poll.


A staggering 82 per cent of respondents believed most experts supported the notion that Iraq was providing "substantial support" to al-Qa'ida - a contention that President Bush has been forced to disavow. Almost 60 per cent were unaware that world opinion was against the war in Iraq, with 21 per cent saying the world was behind the US-led invasion and 38 per cent saying views were "evenly divided".
(See also here.) One way to spin this is "liberals are better informed," but I think that misses the underlying mechanism. I suspect that what's going on is something like this:
  • People are more likely to believe claims that reinforce their political views.
  • Our current conservative administration has been spreading lies, or at least intentionally misleading statements, about important issues of the day.
  • Therefore, conservatives today are more likely than liberals to believe these untrue statements, and thus come off as uninformed.
But the real question to me is, how could the American public be this wrong? Whose fault is it? Certainly the media must bear a large fraction of the blame. People complain back and forth about the media being biased against their favorite group, but the important problem is the opposite: in an attempt to appear "neutral," our major media outlets prefer to report statements that can be attributed to someone rather than statements that are true. If Official X claims that 2+2=5, they will try to find some other Official Y to claim that 2+2=4, or perhaps that 2+2=7, then report both and consider their job well done. (Or if time is running short, the first claim will be reported as is.) It goes beyond politics; if a manager at the cable company claims that their new policy will cut rates for customers, and a consumer-rights advocate claims that the rates will effectively go up, you will most commonly just find both claims reported and left at that, rather than the journalist simply plugging in some numbers and telling us what the truth is. This overly-cautious approach to objectivity is why average people on the street might not know that there has been no link found between Saddam and Al-Qaeda; right-wing sources make the suggestion/implication often enough that the contradictions from left-wing sources seem like just so much partisan back-and-forth, rather than straightforward statements of fact.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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