20 August 2010

Context matters

Wacky beliefs

This sort of thing is why, when the Economist publishes a poll that has less than 2% of people wanting to do something, even if they are nasty Republicans/conservatives, I have to wonder if there was an error in transcription. People are generally and genuinely stupid sometimes and you'd expect some of that to show up in a polling question. Even the Economist I'm sure knows some idiotic people.

Nevertheless these are mostly things that people believe, rather than things that people can associate with facts, and could simply check against reality. Given that there's a much higher percentage that, for example, believes in things like angels or demons or even deities in addition to these more mundane supernatural subsets of belief, asking what people's beliefs are doesn't seem like a fair comparison when asking what their facts are. When our facts are dead wrong (things like Obama signed TARP, when in fact it was a Bush/Paulson thing with plenty of senior Congressional Republicans along for the ride), then that should trouble us more than that more people believe in ESP or telepathy than knew that as a fact.

Speaking of ridiculous beliefs.


And of course, the heuristics of some types of questions, like "do you think the government was behind 9-11?" or "was Obama born in the US?", do lead to an overabundance of stupid answers. Asking people what they believe does tend to produce ridiculously high responses. Still, generally these should cluster around an average rather than appear too randomly. When that average shifts upward or downward significantly, I suspect it still tells us something about the heuristics being used by people answering the question having shifted. If the percentage of people who think Obama is a secret Muslim has gone up, somewhat dramatically at that, then this tells us something. When you drill into who does, partly it tells us that lots of people don't like him, probably for other reasons and seek justification for that disdain (something of the great illogical mind like "I think being Muslim is un-American, and I think Obama is un-American, therefore he might be a Muslim"). Partly it tells us that some people appear to believe that "support" for Islam as a religious body with all its attending institutions is associated only with Muslims (although I'm somewhat skeptical that Obama's been very good at "support"), and since this has become a national issue (when it's entirely a local "problem"), people might associate it with Obama.

And mostly it tells us that there's a very significant percentage of people who are uninformed, and guessing the way they want to lean. This leaning tells us something, perhaps something oppositional. I think for instance they're underselling the "birthers" in that post by not drilling down to see if there's a correlated effect of oppositional politics. We see the same parallel in "Obama is a secret Muslim". Whether or not these beliefs can be dismissed by evidentiary support opposing them is somewhat questionable. When I have engaged people who believe things like this, they dig in rather than question their validity when presented with facts (reality checks). Or more precisely they dismiss the evidence as coming from the MSM or me as a "liberal/socialist" and so on, and continue existing in their own little world. No one who would believe such a thing could possibly be someone they know, or a source of information they would trust.

THAT mindset, which applies to political stripes of all kinds, is worth observing. Because it is dangerous when it entrenches itself in the halls of power. It happened in the 1950s with McCarthy. It happens regularly today regarding American perceptions of Islam in the same manner. When the conclusion matters more than the process used to reach it, we should be troubled.

And since the conclusion is often something like "I hate all Muslims" we should be deeply troubled.
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