Monday, December 20, 2010

Political Science

‎Greek historian Thucydides wrote,

When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.
Both edges of that sword come up when a study makes the rounds online claiming a failed mind is responsible for conservative political positions. Be it lower IQs or outright derangement, these studies will try to show that certain positions are wrong indirectly by marginalizing those who believe them. These studies are automatically accepted among the bitter left and instantly challenged by the right.

Some flaws are more obvious then others. A study claiming conservatism is a mental illness claimed Joseph Stalin was a right winger and antisemitism is an entirely right-wing concept.

The study making the rounds this month claims Fox News misinforms viewers about current events, but the questions it asked appear hand-picked to the flatter the left and challenge the right. Someone who draws zero information from their news source and simply answered with their political beliefs would have the same result with these carefully-selected questions.

For specific examples, click to enlarge the following charts from the study:

This is the same criticism the left presented this Spring when Daniel Klein released a survey showing the left flunked Econ 101 because they didn't understand things like the minimum wage can harm people with low skills. The self-identified libertarians and republicans were not asked questions with challenging answers and scored much higher.

This is not a study that took blank people, exposed them to either news source, and then gauged what they learned. It assumes viewing certain news sources causes opinions when it merely correlates with them because right wingers become Fox viewers and left wingers tune in to MSNBC.

The study tried to deflect this criticism by claiming that democrat voters who watch Fox News showed more negative results than other democrats, but again this can be explained as an artifact of self-selection. A democrat who chooses to watch Fox News is more likely to be a moderate and provide the answers the researchers didn't like.

As for what should people answer correctly, the study failed again. Researchers took a number of debatable issues and declared the left-friendly answer was the correct one. How did they go about determining what is absolute metaphysical truth? They hit up debatable and flawed government agencies for the answers:

In the course of this study, to identify “misinformation” among voters, we used as reference points the conclusions of key government agencies that are run by professional experts and have a strong reputation for being immune to partisan influences. These include the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Commerce, and the National Academy of Sciences. We also noted efforts to survey elite opinion, such as the regular survey of economists conducted by the Wall Street Journal; however, we only used this as supporting evidence for what constitutes expert opinion.
Since when does the CBO have a reputation for being immune to partisan influences? Since when does the CBO even have a reputation for being correct? It doesn't change anything that they got their facts from the Wall Street Journal. Some of these positions are highly contested, even if 50 percent plus one of economists are on one side. For example:

"Only 10% of voters believe their taxes have gone down under President Obama. In fact, over 97% of Americans paid less in taxes in the Obama administration then they did under the Bush administration. 38% of voters believed their taxes went up under the Obama administration."

Some short term taxes went down under Obama, but long term taxes must go up because Deficits Are Future Taxes. This reads like a dumbed-down press release from the administration, not an uncompromising statement of the truth.

"68% of Americans said the stimulus package saved or created only a few jobs. 20% said that the stimulus caused a loss of jobs. Only 8% said the stimulus saved or created millions of jobs. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the stimulus saved or created anywhere between 2.0 to 5.2 million jobs. A survey of economist from The Wall Street Journal found that the stimulus had a "net positive effect" on growth."

This is a poor question to ask because it ignores the jobs destroyed by the taxes needed to pay for it. Displaced jobs is erroneously recorded as created jobs. The Wall Street Journal survey in question had 38 out of 54 economists answer in the affirmative and from the following paragraphs they seemed to be speaking in the short run. In effect, they are counting the visible and ignoring the invisible because that's how the question was asked. They are declaring the truth based on a small newspaper survey of 54 experts.

Read all the questions. Most of these are designed to make President Obama look good to the right. Those questions that were challenging to the left, like the voting record of TARP among democrats, had the same results of misinformation. Why would anyone expect the results to be any different with these questions?

This study was a collection of questions about which political positions are correct, it was not a survey of random news events as its being promoted. The only thing it proved is that people believe in the major opinions that other people with similar views belief; a tautological conclusion. It is useless in answering how informed various viewers are.

1 comment:

  1. Responding to an old post here but I came across your blog through a Google search. For fun, I was creating "10 Commandments of Sane Political Bloggers" on my blog, one of which was "Thou Shalt Not Constantly Refer to the CBO as Bipartisan".

    I enjoy the skepticism and enjoy the commentary! Looking forward to reading more.