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September 15, 2010


I think Brendan is onto something when he cites the possibility that symbolic beliefs are distorting the responses, i.e., that people may be answering in a certain way not because they truly believe something that isn't factual but because they want to convey their support or opposition to something or someone. Rigorous research would be great, but insight into the phenomenon doesn't need to wait for rigorous investigation. An academic or pollster could test a poll on a small sample and then interview the respondents to try to determine what motivated them to answer as they did. At a minimum this might help the design of the poll, as well as suggesting avenues for more rigorous research.

Having praised Brendan in the previous paragraph, let me chastise him for characterizing an opinion as to whether Obama sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists as a misperception. Obama's sympathies are a matter of subjective judgment, not verifiable fact. To treat one person's opinion on the matter as a correct perception and another's as a misperception is simply to impose Brendan's own perception of the issue as the standard of truth. I may agree with him as to this particular perception, but I don't agree with perverting science in this way. Harry Cohn, the longtime head of Columbia Studios, said he had a foolproof way of knowing whether a picture was good. "If my fanny squirms, it's bad. If my fanny doesn't squirm, it's good." The screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz famously replied, "Imagine--the whole world wired to Harry Cohn's ass." In this case, the ass may be Brendan's but the arbitrariness is the same.

Nice post, Brendan.

Another important aspect of why people believe myths is the many elites these believers don't follow. A few elites may spread some of these myths, but many more elites deny them.

CSICOP fights false belefs about ghosts, mind-reading, spoon-bending, dowsing, etc. These beliefs are branded as false by many elites, yet it's the rare myth-believer who changes his/her mind.

Why do so many myth-believers ignore the majority of elites who are telling them the truth? It looks to me as if they don't trust our elites very much.

P.S. I'm particularly struck by the large number of 9/11 Truthers. I don't know of any elite person who's spreading the myth that Bush was somehow involved in the 9/11 attack, but the myth is simply not going away, at least according to survey results.

Would it be possible, in any way, to do follow-up interviews to find out whether people who say (on polls) that they believe Obama was born in Kenya etc actually do believe those things? To be honest, on the rare occasions when I get polled by phone, I answer the questions in a strategic way, to get my political opinions and choices across. If I were asked whether my economic situation had improved under Obama, I would probably say yes, even though in fact it has remained constant. That is because the question I really want to answer is, Do you support Obama? I would guess that most Republicans really want to answer a question such as, Do you utterly despise Obama and want him out of office? But instead they are asked, Do you believe he was born in Kenya? And, Do you think he is a Muslim? So they answer Yes to those, because those were the questions they were asked, and the only way they were given to express (however crudely) their disapproval.

I agree with David, and I'd go even further. I think sometimes people become annoyed as they perceive a bias in the questions being asked, and that colors their responses and may result in what is essentially contrariness. Also, many people simply don't understand the question they're being asked, especially in oral questionnaires. (Lots of effort spent in framing a question very precisely doesn't necessarily mean the nuances of the question are appreciated by the respondents.) Finally, the length of many questionnaires may produce annoyance in respondents and cause them to give unconsidered or contrary responses to the later questions.

Post-questionnaire interviews of respondents in a small-scale test could bring some of these possibilities to the surface. So could asking respondents to verbalize their thinking as they proceed through the questionnaire.

I hope there will be further consideration of the inadequacy of polls and questionnaires to obtain reliable information about respondents' knowledge and beliefs. The cynic in me says there won't be much, because what quantitative social scientists and pollsters want is quantifiable data they can slice and dice, not doubts about whether the data is meaningful.

The problem is that people's self-reports about what they "really" believe have all the same issues as regular survey questions. How do we know that those answers aren't symbolic or strategic? Also, asking people a question like that suggests that they should admit they don't really believe the misperception, which is a cue that could skew the answers. (Note also: Many of these polls ask approval questions and other questions about Obama. These questions are typically not the only way to express disapproval. See the questionnaires for more.)

Brendan -

I find curious the sustained focus on the "Obama is Muslim" opinion, when in the recent polls, the people who "wern't sure" of Obama's religion was not only larger percentage but increaed by a significant amount more than the people who believed he is Muslim.

It appears to me this statistic might be more likely to be a key to understanding the opinion shift than "elites are spreading it", for which the evidence you have provided is rather sketchy.

My thought is that for whatever reason, people are in general more uncertain about Obama's religious beliefs than they were before, and some people - rather than offer a "I don't know" - choose an answer besides what they what they might be more familiar with (i.e. Muslim rather than Christian).

This is just speculation, of course, but so is most of the the "elites effect" you keep citing.

If the money is in the hands of you, you don't want to this fetish grace, Because the sage once such instruction: hardworking than gold.Do you think so?

"when you know you don't know the truth": Isn't that wisdom?

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