Monday, February 27, 2012

Are there two political realities?

Paul Krugman notes and comments on Chris Mooney's essay summarizing some recent research by political scientists showing that Republicans often provide survey responses indicating belief in information that is incorrect or unsound. Furthermore, the research indicates that better-educated Republicans more often express belief in untruths more frequently than less-educated Republican. Krugman quotes Mooney's key passages:
For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans...
But it’s not just global warming where the “smart idiot” effect occurs. It also emerges on nonscientific but factually contested issues, like the claim that President Obama is a Muslim. Belief in this falsehood actually increased more among better-educated Republicans from 2009 to 2010 than it did among less-educated Republicans, according to research by George Washington University political scientist John Sides.
The same effect has also been captured in relation to the myth that the healthcare reform bill empowered government “death panels.” According to research by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, Republicans who thought they knew more about the Obama healthcare plan were “paradoxically more likely to endorse the misperception than those who did not.”
Krugman chalks this up to the triumph of ideology over information in American politics and concludes with a vaguely threatening statement about the limited prospects for rational debate in American politics.
Highly educated political conservatives — and this includes conservative economists — are going to be less persuadable by empirical evidence than the man or woman in the street. The more holes you poke in doctrines like expansionary austerity or supply-side economics, the more committed they will get to those doctrines.
This debate isn’t going to be won by rational argument.
Leaving aside how Krugman thinks he is going to win a debate without rational argument, there is a question about whether surveys are really showing what it looks like they are showing, i.e. that more education and more exposure to information leaves Republicans and conservatives less well informed about the world. As I have argued here before, I don't think this is the case. Instead, I think anonymous telephone or internet survey responses investigating respondents' belief in this or that politically salient fact is going to be strongly contaminated by people's attitudes about the person or policy in question.

So, was the president born in the United States? I suspect that people who dislike the president or disapprove of the the job he is doing in office will be more likely to tell a stranger on the phone that he is not a natural born citizen than someone who supports the president whether or not that person really believes the president was born abroad. Likewise, if I oppose environmental policies like cap-and-trade, I might express my disapproval of that policy to a survey take by expressing disbelief in the facts of man-made global warming whether or not I think human activity influences the climate.

Chris Good wrote about this kind of message-sending survey response last spring for The Atlantic:
We've all said things we don't mean.

If it's not "maybe this was a mistake," or "your sister is the pretty one," it's something else, like, for instance, "I think Barack Obama was born outside the United States and is constitutionally ineligible to be president."
That's one theory we can apply to birtherism -- and it's the theory offered up by respected pollster Gary Langer, who heads up Langer Research Associates and directs polling for ABC News.

A wave of recent surveys have shown that doubts about Obama's birthplace are stunningly prevalent. In a CBS/New York Times poll, 25 percent of all respondents and 45 percent of Republicans said they do not think Obama was born in the United States. A total of 18 percent said they weren't sure. According to Fox News, 24 percent do not think Obama was born in America.

Maybe, just maybe, those poll respondents don't actually think what they say they think, Langer suggests. Maybe they say all this for some other reason -- such as that they just don't like the president.

"I'd suggest that it's dicey at best to evaluate measurements on questions such as the president's birthplace as a 'belief,' as opposed to, for at least some respondents, merely an expression of antipathy," Langer wrote in an email. "We have called this 'expressed belief,' in contrast with 'affirmed belief.' The latter is an assertion of perceived factual reality; the former, message-sending."
In fact, if a person believes that politicians will use evidence of the public's belief in a particular fact as a justification for a policy with which she disagrees, she every incentive to misrepresent her beliefs in a survey. Likewise, if she believe that evidence of an unfounded opposition to a particular policy that she opposes will still scare politicians away from supporting it, she has the same incentive to say she believes something that she does not.

The upshot of this is that directly asking people about their beliefs in surveys will not do a very good job of telling us about the state of knowledge around politically charged facts. By extension, the extent to which Republicans and Democrats really disagree about important facts (and the extent to which that disagreement is greater than in the past) is probably exaggerated by simple survey data and overly-earnest analyses of them. Polarization in the mass public is very real, of course, but by and large it seems to me to be motivated by the mass parties' different responses to the same political reality rather than much serious disagreement about what that reality is.

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