Friday, January 25, 2013

The More You Know, the More You Don't Know?

The more Republicans know about the politics, the more likely they believe in political conspiracy theories.This conclusion comes from an article in Mother Jones and relies on a survey conducted last month.  More on that survey in a moment.

Here's the crux of the article:
Among Democrats and independents, having a higher level of political knowledge was correlated with decreased belief in conspiracies. But precisely the opposite was the case for Republicans, where knowledge actually made the problem worse. For each political knowledge question that they answered correctly, Republicans' belief in at least one conspiracy theory tended to increase by 2 percentage points.
The article's author, Chris Mooney, knows his stuff.  He suggests the reason may in part have to do with a conservative's greater need for "cognitive closure" and a need for certainty. A reasonable hypothesis, but I'd counter it has more to do with the nature of the conspiracies examined in the survey.  The two "conservative" conspiracies are about Obama specifically, the two "liberal" conspiracies have to do with Bush stealing the 2000 election and "The Truther" movement about 9/11.

Equivalent?  I'm not convinced.  But let's turn to the survey itself, a national poll of 814 registered voters conducted in December 2012.  First, despite the claim, it's really a survey of people who say they're registered voters, but that's a methodological quibble.  Political scientist Dan Cassino, who runs the Fairleigh Dickinson University poll, says "birther" conspiracy theory is likely to believed more than others because "it's been discussed so often." 

Yup.  Two myths are anchored on Obama, are more recent, and received lots of mainstream media play -- mostly attempts to debunk them.  I'd add here that there's a growing body of research that suggests attempts to debunk myths actually adds to their believability for some people, so I'd be damned cautious about arguing politically knowledgeable Republicans are more likely to believe "their" favorite myths compared to politically knowledgeable Democrats and "their" favorite myths.

And here's a point from Cassino's press release that doesn't comfortably fit the Republicans-are-evil-and-dumb narrative -- young African-Americans are more likely than whites to believe in conspiracy theories.  Not sure how the hell you explain that one.  Would you even want to try?  Not me.

If we buy this set of conspiracy theories are equivalent (debatable) and if we buy into how the survey measures political knowledge (can't tell from the release), then the results raise a number of questions. 

Allow me to get a bit PhDweebish below. 

Greater political knowledge should result in less belief in conspiracies, but hold on.  The theory of motivated reasoning suggests partisans, even knowledgeable ones, will be more likely to believe such myths.  That's all partisans, not just one side of the divideEssentially, people believe what they want to believe, especially when it's negative about someone they disagree with or dislike.  So I maintain the Obama-anchored questions are not equivalent to the "truther" and "stolen election" questions.  The latter are from several years ago, myths that received less mainstream news play by comparison -- and certainly damn little near the time the survey was conducted. This can skew your results.

Perhaps, and only perhaps, the Mother Jones article is a textbook instance of motivated reasoning, of seeing and believing what you want to believe -- in this case, about Republicans.


DRC said...

Dan Cassino here- I've actually written quite a bit about motivated reasoning, and what you're describing is exactly what I was trying to explore with the poll. What's interesting to me is that there does seem to be some degree of asymmetry in the extent of the motivated reasoning- Mooney correctly cited a 2006 Political Psychology article I did with Matt Lebo that showed similar effects. I'd argue the asymmetry is mostly due to asymmetries in how motivated partisans are: Republicans generally have stronger affect towards their own candidates than Democrats do towards theirs. As to why that is- well, Mooney likes the Need For Closure arguments, I'm not so sure.
I agree that the conspiracy theories aren't directly comparable- in pretesting, they were as close as we could be. No one remembers Vince Foster for some reason!

Hollander said...

Hi Dan. Was wondering if you'd stumble across this blog. I agree it's hard to come up with a comparable conspiracy theory to those about Obama. In fact, I'm not sure we'll ever see a president spawn more theories than Obama, for all the obvious reasons, but also because our time -- and the Internet -- seems to nurture such theories. I'd also guess, with no data handy, that Republicans have more affect against the other guy than Democrats do, at least now. When George W. Bush was president, it'd probably be the other way around.