On That Study That Says Fox Viewers Are Misinformed…

…the one from the University of Maryland.

Mediaite is to be congratulated for putting up something that not only talks about the study but actually points to it. There is an abundance of spewing and intoning and condescending out there in blogger-land, in which people merely talk about the study around virtual mouthfuls of churlish chortling, basking in the afterglow of skimming through something that comports with their prejudices in such a satisfying way. But they don’t point to it.

This is not the intellectual behavior of people who meet my definition of “informed.”

I should add in the spirit of full disclosure I don’t have a dog in this hunt. This is the twenty-first century and responsible consumers of news don’t get their news from the teevee anymore. They take a more active role now — they put together queries about what they want to find out, who says what, what the opposition has to say about it, and then they form an opinion.

If I do this right, you’re about to find out how that is done and also why it is so important.

Daisy DukeBut anyway, I don’t regard myself as a Fox News watcher. If I beat the Lady of the House home, I might turn on Hannity if there’s enough time to attend to a casual chore like hanging up my shirts from the drier, but not enough time for an episode of Dukes of Hazzard. Only in the spirit of, since these are interesting times in which we live, I don’t want to be completely cut-off from the outside world for an evening…and I can’t hit the news scrolls on the computer when I have a “One Big Ass Mistake, America” tee shirt in one hand and a hanger in the other.

So I have the channel memorized. But would I say Fox News is a significant contributor to my net information base? Not even close. If I’m misinformed about the issues, don’t go crying to Hannity about it.

Anyway, back to the study. By reading what the eager cheerleaders of the study do not want you to read — which is the work itself — you find that the “misinformed” assessment was formed by means of responses to carefully chosen questions. In other words, if a respondent refused or failed to reject a pre-selected and pre-defined canard, which apparently the authors of the study decided ahead of time was somehow relevant, the respondent was “misinformed.”

Even if I liked the questions that were asked — if I liked the canards that were pre-selected — I’d have to characterize this as a not terribly helpful way to go. As you’ll see below, the canards have it in common that, if true, they would make a certain consistent ideological position (progressive) look discredited and undesirable. The obvious problem with this, is that a respondent could reject all of them out of loyalty to this ideological position and come out of it looking like a rocket scientist.

Care to argue with me about it? Take a look.

P. 5. Most economists think stimulus legislation has saved or created only a few jobs, or has even caused job losses.

P. 6: Economists estimate that healthcare legislation will increase the deficit.

P. 7: The economy is still getting worse.

P. 8: Most scientists think climate change is not occurring.

P. 9: The TARP program began under President Obama.

P. 11: The bailout of General Motors and Chrysler occurred under President Obama and not under President Bush.

P. 12: There were no income tax cuts in the stimulus legislation.

P. 14: President Obama has either decreased troop levels in Afghanistan, or kept them the same.

P. 14: President Obama may not have been born in the United States.

In addition to these, there was one token question that went the other way, on page twelve:

In October an article on the website ThinkProgress.org launched the claim that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was using large amounts of money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates. Most voters–60%–were aware that this charge about the Chamber of Commerce was not proven to be true. However, a substantial 31% did believe the claim that “the US Chamber of Commerce was spending large amounts of money it had raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates and attack Democratic candidates” was proven to be true.

A token question is useful for keeping ankle-biters like me from making absolute statements that would otherwise be true: “All of the litmus tests in this study would be satisfied by an uninformed participant who just happens to lean left politically.” It helps to refudiate a claim like that — but, I note, it wouldn’t have much of an effect on the statistical outcome.

There seems to have been a prodigal expense of effort going into this study, and I don’t even want to know how many dollars. The research, from what I can tell, is all based on the survey responses to these chosen falsehoods. It just seems strange to me they weren’t chosen with quality in mind. If I were to commission such a study, there would be a great many more questions. Something approaching a hundred seems more reasonable.

I would sort them into three buckets: “The revelation of the truth makes the conservatives look good”; “the revelation of truth makes the liberals look good”; and “neutral.” Then I would fill these buckets so that the final ratio was something like two, two and six. I expect, as far as finding the canards to be debunked, the six-neutral would be the most difficult one to fill in terms of quota.

I note, too, that some of the questions asked by the World Public Opinion Dot Org are framed around “what the experts think.” So there is another obvious point to be made about the flaw in their research: It is inclined to bestow the title of “well informed” upon people who place great weight on what “experts” think, and then just slavishly mimic them. I suppose there is a certain fairness to that, along with a worthy fidelity to the intent of the study — you need to track down some information in order to find out what the so-called experts are thinking, so you can copy it — but it occurs to me. When we seek to establish and maintain an “informed” democratic republic of participating voters, this seems somewhat far-flung and distant from what we should be trying to build.

What good is information if you aren’t thinking independently about it means?

Anyway, it is clear to me from reading this study that World Public Opinion and the University of Maryland are going to need some assistance coming up with some canards/litmus tests for the next study. It’s also clear to me such an abundant effort will be made at least one more time, prior to the elections of 2012 — of this, I have no doubt.

So following are my submissions for the next selection of falsehoods to be included in the next round.

1. The New Deal ended the Great Depression.
2. Science is about reaching a consensus.
3. After we invaded Iraq we learned the invasion was completely unjustified.
4. The First Amendment criminalizes the expression of religious belief in a public school or in any public place.
5. The Supreme Court has consistently held that life doesn’t begin until birth.
6. President Nixon started the Vietnam war.
7. The Pilgrims came to America so they wouldn’t have to pray or go to church.
8. The Constitution, through the Bill of Rights, grants certain rights to The People.
9. It also grants the Supreme Court the final say in whether a law passed by Congress is valid.
10. America was started so that all pressing issues of public importance could be decided democratically.
11. In the years after Ronald Reagan signed the tax cut in 1981, tax revenues fell.
12. Women in the work force, on average, make 70 cents to every dollar made by an equally qualified man.
13. On average, the rich inherit their wealth; they don’t earn it.
14. While serving as Governor of Texas, George W. Bush pardoned James Byrd’s killers.
15. ObamaCare has never done anything to create a “death panel,” this is a complete falsehood.
16. Al Gore never claimed to have created the Internet, this is another falsehood.
17. The Second Amendment is about hunting, and if you don’t hunt your food you have no use for it.
18. By renewing the Bush tax cuts across the board, Congress is giving money to the wealthiest Americans.
19. Equality is one of the founding, visionary ideals of America.
20. Diversity is another.
21. Blacks didn’t win the right to vote until the 1960’s.
22. Under Reagan, the CIA sold crack to inner-city youths to keep them criminalized and impoverished.
23. Karl Rove outed Valerie Plame and destroyed her career as a covert operative.
24. George Bush (the elder) persuaded the Iranians not to release the hostages until Reagan’s inauguration.
25. The Boy Scouts is a hate group.
26. Unemployment benefits stimulate the economy.
27. A fetus is not a life.
28. Under President Bush, gas prices went up as oil companies saw their biggest profit margins ever.
29. A progressive tax system imposes the highest proportional liability on the wealthiest Americans, which is as it should be.
30. Sarah Palin said, “I can see Russia from my house!”

At sometime or another, I have argued with liberals — usually on the innerwebs — who honestly believed one, some or most of these demonstrably false statements. I tripped them up easily; they were uninformed because they were misinformed. Handed a bowl of drivel and nonsense which they then gulped down uncritically, probably repeating it more than a few times before I smacked ’em upside the head over it. The balance of what remains, I have heard uttered by progressive politicians. They were seldom to never questioned about it.

So if the study is to serve the public interest by offering us cues as to where people might be going to become informed or misinformed, I would argue there is an urgency involved in framing the next study around falsehoods like the ones I have offered. Among the falsehoods they are already using, they could jettison some to make room. I would start with the ones that begin with “experts/economists/scientists say…” Because this, too, is not a pattern of behavior I would expect from an informed person — you turn on the teevee to watch a news anchor regurgitate to you whatever it is the experts say?

No, I think the study would be better served by using what I’ve offered. I wonder if that will have an effect on the result? Ya think it would?

I probably needn’t worry about that. World Public Opinion Dot Org is merely a label, a front for The Program on International Policy Attitudes. PIPA is bankrolled by, among other sponsors, the Tides Foundation.

So I’m not holding my breath for my offering of thirty questions to make it into the next round.

Cross-posted at House of Eratosthenes and Washington Rebel.

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