Friday, August 6, 2010

Backfire and Inception

David Sirota penned a column last weekend awakening us to the deceptions in our media that are causing us to experience a real-world “Inception.” The play on words refers to the Leonardo DiCaprio movie that has been in theaters the last few weeks.

Mr. Sirota welcomes us into his column, noting how “we are reflexively hostile to ideas when we know they come from agenda-wielding intruders.” (People in general want to avoid propaganda, so we are all comfortably on the same page at this point.)

But then comes the psychological adjustment. He alerts us to “the conservative media dreamland” which is keeping us all in an “impregnable bubble.”

And so we get the message: In this column, conservatives will be wearing the black hats.

Mr. Sirota contrasts Fox News with the “traditional” media (New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, ABC/CBS/NBC News). We find that Fox News is part of a multimedia dreamscape that feeds us constant propaganda, while the traditional media might also be in cahoots, broadcasting "synthetic ideas" such as “militarism and market fundamentalism.”

Continuing on, Mr. Sirota warns that “problems are emerging” and our minds are being sown with “demonstrable fallacies.”

What is the source of this dreamworld where facts no longer have meaning? Mr. Sirota refers to the work of Joe Keohane, writing in the Boston Globe.

Mr. Keohane explains the backfire effect: “When misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs.”

It makes you wonder who these “political partisans” might be. Can you guess?

They are conservatives.

I should end this post here, and let that ride. But you might like further information on the source referenced by Mr. Sirota.

Mr. Keohane writes about the 2005-2006 work of a University of Michigan student. The student, Brendan Nyhan, worked with Jason Reifler, a professor at Georgia State University to examine the persistence of political misperceptions. The two conducted experiments in which conservative students were given mock news articles to read. The students were then measured on their perceptions of the articles.

The results of the study are summed up by Mr. Nyhan in a 9/15/2008 post on his blog. He characterizes the reaction of conservatives who defend their beliefs when confronted with opposing facts as a backfire effect. He points to an article of the same date by Washington Post writer Shankar Vedantam who states:
In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might "argue back" against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same "backfire effect" when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration's stance on stem cell research...
We see the Washington Post and the Boston Globe and the Denver Post have published articles strengthening this argument. The failings of Republicans and conservatives are on display. Mr. Sirota refers to the Boston Globe article as a “report about new scientific findings.”

Let’s look into the “science.”

If you read the report from Mr. Nyhan’s study, you find this quote about the methodology used:
Method – Tax cuts
The second experiment in Study 2 tests subjects’ responses to the claim that President Bush’s tax cuts stimulated so much economic growth that they actually has [sic] the effect of increasing government revenue over what it would otherwise have been. The claim, which originates in supply-side economics and was frequently made by Bush administration officials, Republican members of Congress, and conservative elites, implies that tax cuts literally pay for themselves. While such a response may be possible in extreme circumstances, the overwhelming consensus among professional economists who have studied the issue – including the 2003 Economic Report of the President and two chairs of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers – is that this claim is empirically implausible in the U.S. context (Hill 2006, Mankiw 2003, Milbank 2003)

Subjects read an article on the tax cut debate attributed to either the New York Times or (see appendix for text). In all conditions, it included a passage in which President Bush said “The tax relief stimulated economic vitality and growth and it has helped increase revenues to the Treasury.” As in Study 1, this quote – which states that the tax cuts increased revenue over what would have otherwise been received – is taken from an actual Bush speech. Subjects in the correction condition received an additional paragraph clarifying that both nominal tax revenues and revenues as a proportion of GDP declined sharply after Bush’s first tax cuts were enacted in 2001 (he passed additional tax cuts in 2003) and still had not rebounded to 2000 levels by either metric in 2004. The dependent variable is agreement with the claim that “President Bush's tax cuts have increased government revenue” on a Likert scale ranging from strongly disagree (1) to strongly agree (5).

Results – Tax cuts
The two regression models in Table 3 indicate that the tax cut correction generated another backfire effect.
Do you sense some bias in this survey? It might be interesting to note what the researchers decided should be areas for further study:
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, there is a great deal of evidence that liberals (e.g. the stem cell experiment above) and Democrats (e.g., Bartels 2002: 133-137, Bullock 2007, Gerber and Huber 2010) also interpret factual information in ways that are consistent with their political predispositions. Without conducting more studies, it is impossible to determine if liberals and conservatives react to corrections differently.
There is a lot to absorb in this post. We’ve got a celebrated research paper that looks at conservative students as lab rats. We’ve got a conclusion that characterizes them as dysfunctional participants in our society. We’ve got at least two separate news organs promoting this perception.

And we’ve got David Sirota warning us of the dangers of conservative propaganda.

UPDATE 8/19/2010:
Inside Higher Ed has an article that describes more research being done on conservative students.  You get the feeling that conservative students are like some form of alien visitor or an enigmatic disease.  They must be investigated!

I'm probably being overly sensitive, but this treatment of conservatives as "objects to be investigated" is also a subtle aspect of dhimmitude.

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