Monday, October 1, 2012

Don't Confuse Me With the Facts!

It’s a given that polling data and all surveys have margins of error, and that questions on many surveys are skewed to yield a desired result. “Do you favor the affordable health care act?”  Versus “Are you in favor of DEATH PANELS?”  

When did you stop beating your wife?

There is bias in collecting, interpreting and reporting data.  A poll taken BY Democrats will, more than likely, yield an opinion that is favorable to a more liberal agenda.  Same is true for Republicans.  How questions are worded, the size of the sample, which groups are inadvertently (or intentionally) left out – all tend to make data biased. 

Given that we should be skeptical of polling data, there have been some intriguing findings in recent polls.  In Ohio last month, for example, there was an interesting poll by Public Policy Polling.  It showed that Obama had the biggest lead since May.  That’s a pretty big thing for Mitt Romney, since Ohio is a “BATTLEGROUND” state and his path to the White House leans pretty heavily on winning Ohio. 

That didn’t surprise me much.  But a secondary poll was far more interesting to me.  PPP asked the same perspective voters who they believed deserved more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden.  38% said President Obama, 47% said they weren’t sure and… wait for it… 15 percent said Mitt Romney was responsible for bin Laden’s death.  Frankly, this floored me.  Even given reasonable margin of error, more than half of the electorate in Ohio does not know that Obama was the one who gave the order to take bin Laden out. 

Well, one in four Americans doesn’t believe that Obama was born in the US – 45% among Republicans.

18% of Republicans and 11% of Americans still think President Obama is Muslim.

All of this seems a little sketchy to me.  It’s hard to believe that people really believe these things.  Of course there are truly uninformed people out there who pay absolutely no attention to any news whatsoever.  But that would only account for a few percent.  So how is it that 45% of Republicans don’t know that Obama was born in the US?  I think the short answer is that people believe what they want to believe.  

As I was fishing around for some answers, I found this interesting article about voter bias.  There was this cool paper by a guy named Larry Bartels from Vanderbilt called, “Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions”.  The crux of the piece is that voters, “have trouble crediting politicians they don’t like for policy outcomes they like.  …And killing bin Laden is a policy outcome they do like. And so partisan effects have led some Republicans to argue that Obama was not primarily responsible for killing bin Laden or, even more absurdly, that Romney was responsible.”  This is something I felt pretty strongly about all along.  There is a huge amount of people, liberals and conservatives alike, who believe what they want to believe despite any evidence to the contrary. 

But even beyond that, correcting people’s misunderstandings creates a backlash effect in that they are more likely to stand by their proven incorrect assumptions.  “Telling conservatives that there were no WMDs in Iraq made them more likely to say there were weapons.”  Hmmm.

On a related note, there was an interesting study by researchers from Fairleigh Dickinson University.  A thousand people were asked 5 questions on domestic issues (“Which party has the most seats in the House of Representatives right now?”) and foreign policy issues (“There have been increasing talks about economic sanctions in Iran.  What are these sanctions supposed to do?”).  FOX “news” viewers scored lowest on both categories.  They were behind people who regularly watch MSNBC, The Daily Show (HA!), and the Sunday talk show viewers.  People who listen to NPR were the best informed and, sadly, even people who don’t watch or listen to the news at all were better informed than FOX viewers.   

I’m just saying.  


George said...

HA! Jennifer was just commenting last week how absurd it is that we watch the Daily Show more than the "real news". I said I felt better informed by watching the Daily Show. Now I know I was right.

Suzanne Odell said...

Thank you for this. I have recently been accused by someone as ignoring the "facts" and not listening.....this came from someone who swears by Fox News and regularly posts things on facebook about Obama praying to Allah in the white house....sigh......what do you do with that? What does society do with that? How do you reason with unreason? BTW - this is a college educated person....