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September 15, 2008


This is excellent research! Very interesting.

And now to find away around people's determination to never be wrong.

Congratulations Brendan, on the paper and on the publicity.

The paper says Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals. Based on all the political stuff I read as well as the people I know, I absolutely do not believe that conservatives have more rigid views than liberals. So, while the overall research result makes sense to me, I would dispute the comparison of liberals to conservatives. Perhpas the (presumably) liberal researchers went wrong because of their rigitity. Here's why:

I read a summary of the Duelfer. It may have been "comprehensive" in the sense of looking at what was then known, but it also showed how much information was unavailable. Many Iraq scientists had not been interviewed. Thousands of pages from Saddam's files had not been translated and reviewed. There seems to be no practical way to prove that weapons were not sent to Syria. So, reading the Duelfer report may have reminded some people that while no WMDs had been found and there was no evidence that they had existed, the case against their existance was not iron-clad.

Regarding the question of whether tax rate reductions lead to increases, the poor wording in the WaPo article makes me suspect that the question may have been ambiguous.

It's obvious that decreasing the tax rate can either increase or decrease taxes collected, depending on the existing economy and tax rate. If the current tax rate were zero, an increase in rate would natuarlly increase taxes. If the current tax rate were 100%, no taxes would be collectd, so a decrease in tax rate would increase taxes collected.

So, if the survey simply asked whether tax rate decreases would increase taxes collected, the answer would depend on how the question was interpreted.

Thanks David for the thoughtful comments.

The conservative/liberal rigidity is an open issue that is currently being debated in the psychological literature. We did not come to any firm conclusions. Here is what we wrote in the paper's conclusion:

It would also be helpful to test additional corrections of liberal misperceptions. Currently, all of our backfire results come from conservatives – a finding that may provide support for the hypothesis that conservatives are especially dogmatic (Greenberg and Jonas 2003; Jost et al 2003a, 2003b). However, without conducting more studies, it is impossible to determine if the results we observe are systematic or the result of the specific misperceptions tested.

Please see the paper for the exact wording used in the experiments. In terms of Iraq, it's impossible to prove a negative, but there's simply no evidence of WMDs being hidden. On the latter point re: tax cuts, the dependent variable is whether President Bush's tax cuts increased revenue, which avoids the 100% issue entirely. In the range of levels of taxation currently being debated in American politics, there is a consensus among professional economists across the ideological spectrum that tax cuts decrease revenue.

Interesting paper, Brendan, but I agree with David that the difference isn't so much between liberals and conservatives as between ideologues and non-ideologues.

Republican partisans appear more rigid than Democrats today because they have to defend the actuality of the last few years against their deeply held beliefs that Republicans will create a fiscally responsible, highly efficient, smaller government and are better than Democrats on national security issues.

Democrats can still paint a picture of the utopia that will result if only they gain control of the presidency and a filibuster-proof majority and they often make excuses for a party that capitulated on war funding, on FISA, and on forceful resistance against a president whose popularity has sunk into the mid-20's. That's pretty strong denial in it's own right.

The logic David applies allows him to accept any position he is predisposed to favor or to reject any notion he is predisposed to oppose.

That may well be the same though process (or "reasoning") applied by the test subjects.

Howard, I thought the exact same thing after reading his post.

The logic David applies allows him to accept any position he is predisposed to favor or to reject any notion he is predisposed to oppose.

Actually, I think that's the point being made in Brendan's experiment. People are predisposed to certain ideas (e.g. "tax cuts always increase tax revenues") and get defensive when the response is simply "No they don't".

It's very difficult to change an ideological viewpoint by confronting it directly. You have to present a counterargument in a way that lets people come to the realization on their own. That was the genius in Mark Anthony's "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him" speech.

Howard Craft and Stacy, in 1998, when the UN inspectors left Iraq, they reported that Saddam had stores of chemical weapons. These chemicals have never been accounted for. Nobody knows how long Saddam retained those chemical weapons or what happened to them.

So, if asked whether Saddam had WMDs in 2003, I think, "I don't know" is the correct answer. One may believe that Saddam probably disposed of them in the period 1998 - 2002, but AFAIK there's no evidence one way or the other.

Look at it this way, David -

You don’t need proof that a theory you believe to be true is true (WMD existed in Iraq in 2003).

But you will reject a position you don't favor because you require 100% certainty (human activity is the primary cause of global warming - reference your post of 6/11/08).

Then, for a policy issue the exception can become the rule. If there is any possibility of a favorable outcome, under different circumstances, then we should expect favorable outcome, under existing circumstances (i.e., reducing taxes will increase revenue).

Howard Craft, I don't understand the views you are attributing to me. I hold pretty much the same views on whether there were chemical weapons in Iraq in 2003 and on whether human activity is the primary cause of global warming. My view is that I don't know for sure about either one.

Mr. Nyhan-

I enjoyed the paper very much. However, the PDF I downloaded (from the top of the page) doesn't seem to have any of the tables or figures. Is there another place to find the paper that has the information? I would really appreciate it. Thank you. Please keep up the good work.

Has anyone else had this problem? The online version of the paper should have all the tables and figures at the end.

They also have found in longitudinal studies of kindergarteners through adulthood that conservatives and liberals tended to have different life experiences. Conservatives tended to have more authoritarian backgrounds and bought into the mindset of not questioning authority even when they had reservations.

Sex researcher studies have found conservatives to be kinkier and more likely to cheat on their spouses. Liberals appear to be more vanilla and faithful.


Interesting articles. I also send my congrats on the paper and the publicity. I have had difficulties downloading the actual paper but I look forward to reading it.

As for conservatives resisting refutation, I believe part of the conservative philosophy is a tendency to suspect that a change from the current state of affairs is not necessarily always a good thing. Don’t we consider someone who wants things to generally remain the same as “conservative”? In this way, conservatives may tend to see viewpoints that differ from what they currently believe as less likely to be true than not.

Another factor that might enter into the equation here is that there appears to be a tendency of conservatives to view opinion dictated from an “elite” position as also somewhat suspect? Or as Mickey Kaus - certainly not a conservative - put it yesterday “Lecturing the public on what's 'true" and what's a "lie" (when the truth isn't 100% clear) plays into some of the worst stereotypes about liberals--that they are preachy know-it-alls hiding their political motives behind a veneer of objectivity and respectability.”

On another note, I did find it rather ironic that 2 basically refuted but widely popular myths are used in the articles as background “facts”.

The 2007 article states as a fact that “Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept 11”. However, a un-biased reading of all the suspect statements indicates that any “connection” appears to have inadvertent. IMO, it is only those who were pre-disposed to believe the Bush admin was nefarious and tricky in the first place saw the statements as intentionally mis-leading. Despite numerous refutations, the idea has been repeated so many times it is now a “fact” in many intelligent people’s minds.

Frankly, I hate to open up this box of worms again, because I have found my discussions with people who believe the connections were deliberate manipulations have been a waste of time and a confirmation of the articles above as their minds are made up regardless of any other arguments.

The second “myth as fact” in the recent article uses Sarah Palin’s statements about being “against the Bridge to Nowhere” - which has actually usually been stated as “stopping” it - as equivalent with the claim that she was “always” against it, which to my knowledge has never been asserted by Palin or the McCain campaign. Again, the myth persists in some circles despite no evidence.

As always, we humans are strange creatures – so careful to see the worst in others while excusing the same mistakes by ourselves as innocent.

Finally, I am fascinated by the idea that incorrect information can be interpreted by our brains as correct, which gives me pause and reinforces my belief that we need to exercise some care over which information we let into our brains.

Thanks for the brain stiumlation!

David - yes, we don't have perfect knowledge on many subjects, but you use that lack of perfect knowledge selectively - to advocate for specific positions on a case-by-case basis.

The second “myth as fact” in the recent article uses Sarah Palin’s statements about being “against the Bridge to Nowhere” - which has actually usually been stated as “stopping” it - as equivalent with the claim that she was “always” against it

Wow, that's quite a stretch in credibility your willing to make there. What Palin said repeatedly was:

"I told the Congress "thanks, but no thanks," for that Bridge to Nowhere.

If our state wanted a bridge, we'd build it ourselves. "

But of course she never said anything of the sort, even metaphorically. She took a blank check from the federal government and happily spent it. And she's on record lamenting the fact that the bridge wouldn't be built because Congress was unlikely to be forthcoming with the rest of the money needed.

The very idea that she or any other governor would say "no thanks" to a quarter billion dollars in free money is so transparently ridiculous I'm amazed anyone has fallen for it.

She said "Thanks, but no thanks" to Ted Stevens and the people of Ketchikan, not to the Congress.

Jinchi -

No stretch is necessary. Your comments indicate you did not read what I actually wrote (or perhaps my comments weren’t clear but on review, I think not).

I am not claiming Palin isn't exaggerating her stance against pork projects. I am aware she took the money and re-directed it.

I am objecting to the characterization of her statements as implying she was “always” against the Bridge to Nowhere, as this article states as a fact. As far as I am aware she has never said such a thing, but many critics appear to be so busy trying characterize anything she says as a “lie” that they stretch the truth themselves in their mischaracterization.

Here's the point MartyB -

First, she was not always against the bridge but she hasn't ever said, since joining the campaign, that she wasn't always opposed to the bridge. Instead she has given the opposite impression.

Second, she accepted the funds. She doesn't tell people about that either. Instead she implies that they refused the funding completely.

So the real "fib" is that she is using this incident as evidence that she is a reformer and that she told Congress they (Alaska) didn't want the Federal money because her administration opposed to the bridge. That, at some point, she actually went to the Federal Government (Congress) and pulled the plug on the bridge.

That's not how it happened and yet she has portrayed the events that way.

Is it a big deal?

No, but it's a distortion.

Excellent analysis. I was curious about the case you didn't examine in detail (involving Unocal). Do you have those raw results in a form that you could easily forward to me?

Nice work! FYI, Brendan, you should add a link for Reddit--the readership there is more sophisticated than Digg's.

Jinchi -

If you read my posts, I believe it's clear I don’t disagree that the McCain campaign isn’t telling the whole story on the Bridge. I was simply pointing out that the WaPo story simply distorts the info in the other direction.

How ironic that our exchanges are attached to a story that people may be so anxious to reinforce their previous opinions that they miss the point of alternative views.

Lords knows I’ve done the same before so no offense intended. :-)

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