17 December 2010

In other news... the news is wrong

Which is not terribly surprising come to think of it..

Some of these are amusing. In the abstract way that stupidity can be funny. Here's what I've missed out on by avoiding Faux this year.
The beliefs of the stupid:

"Most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses" (12 points more likely)- I'd be willing to say it didn't help very much, certainly not as much as is being claimed, but CAUSED job losses? Wow. In a related problem: "The stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts" (14 points) and this one too... "Their own income taxes have gone up" (14 points)

"Most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit" (31 points)- Not in the direct way. I think it hurts by using up a lot of deficit closing cuts (assuming they're actually used) to pay for health care rather than close the deficit. But that's not what the average Faux viewer would be claiming either.

Most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points) - Getting away from economics, where there are fewer empirical issues to be reported (and a lot of theory and conjecture), this is not a good sign.

When TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
The auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
It is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

The most profound effects were with those people watching Faux everyday. Which isn't terribly surprising. Though I'm less sure this is a causation problem and more of a "I'm already an idiot, tell me what I already know or I'm changing the channel to someone crazier than you!" issue. In other words, I have full confidence in the American people's power for stupidity being somewhat innate and deliberate rather than grown and nurtured by a nefarious Roger Ailes. At least for a significant portion of the population to be incurious about complex issues. And that this is largely a bipartisan problem, but certainly appears alive and well for our right-wing nuttiest companions in this place on the most broad set of misbegotten fact sets (anything from the economy to the drug war, the actual wars, and so on).

But buried in there, I'm sort of curious what happened with people who weren't exposed to Faux. For instance, the study is supposedly partly targeting the impact of corporate spending on campaigns (in the wake of Citizens United).

But one element is that large percentages (90%) of people claimed to detect false or misleading claims in advertisements, most often frequently. What were these false claims that they discerned (which in some cases may even have been true, given these above issues as false beliefs of some voters)? And most importantly was this an increase? Did more people detect false and misleading information, and what did they do about it (usually the answer is: dismiss and ignore it rather than investigate the veracity of any borderline plausible claims)?

The study's answer: "While we do not have data to make a clear comparison to the past, this high level of misinformation and the fact that voters perceived a higher than usual level of false and misleading information, suggests that the increased flow of money into political advertising may have contributed to a higher level of misinformation." In other words, we have no idea, but people seem to think there's more bullshit, so they must be right. Even though about the bullshit itself they seem to be completely wrong. Also we have no idea what the causation was. It's possible that this was merely a peculiar election with lots of silly claims being made by the politicians themselves (consider the emotional rhetoric being lobbed about). My take: people are forgetting that EVERY election is surrounded by bizarre and erroneous claims and silly charges being leveled against opponents or to lobby for peculiar interests. Maybe they saw more of them. Or maybe they consumed more of them voluntarily this time around. Or maybe they just don't remember paying attention before. But there's isn't enough evidence to go from that to "well it must be caused by all this money!" And even if it is, large numbers of people detected at least some of it as silly nonsense, or claimed to. That would seem to suggest that money isn't a big issue so much as a public inoculated against misinformation (or at least what they perceive as such). And the solution to that is... well it appears to be greater polarization. That is, that people believe only those people on their team and ignore others. I suppose there's another longer term solution: that people consume more non-partisan sources of information and form informed opinions. But that's not why people vote (nor is it rational to assume that they ever will). So forget that ever happening.

One of the most damning problems: a lot of these questions had little impact and difference in response achieved through educational levels. Usually the beliefs of well-educated are marginally distinct from those of the rabble, particularly regarding complex policy issues and the established opinions of policy wonks and experts on those issues. We see this on the fact that troop levels went up in Afghanistan (with a typical and very wide gap between the educated and less-educated), but not so much on questions like the health care law, taxation levels, or TARP. It's possible that educational levels exposed people to the idea that it was the GOVERNMENT, or other official agencies creating misinformation (for instance the CBO's methodology for determining job growth caused by the stimulus has a lot of questionable assumptions). But I'm not sure how this would matter for a question about what experts think is the reality (since those are the questions being posed rather than what is actually happening or not).

I'm also a little skeptical that this poll is legit. The 64% GOP respondents that say it's not clear that Obama was born in the US is kind of an outlier, at least as I understand it (the number is certainly higher for Republicans than the rest of the population, but that seems about double what I've seen it as). The fact that misinformation was widely believed by voters of both parties however isn't terribly surprising.
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