on Fox News, closed loops, and the denial of reality

Posted: November 21, 2012 in bad science, Fox "news", politics, Republicans, science-ish, the media
Tags: , ,

This past November we witnessed something truly remarkable, something quite new in modern politics. Despite dozens of polls, carefully calculated predictions, and just plain math, the results of this election were a complete shock to the GOP establishment, including people who should have known better – conservative pollsters, commentators, and the campaign itself. As the race was called for Obama, and as both the senate and the house lost republican seats, we witnessed Karl Rove sputter and bellow in his shock and saw slack-jawed disbelief on FOX News anchors’ faces. We read about the scramble to take Romney’s victory web site down, which an over-confident staffer had made live a few hours too early. We learned that Romney considered it unnecessary to prepare a concession speech. For months, GOP strategists, conservative journalists, big money donors and most of my Republican friends had been confidently claiming a big win for the GOP, despite all of the well-publicized, mainstream, non-partisan polls, surveys and analysis to the contrary. (I won a wager and got a wonderful 2009 Malbec from my very intelligent, well-read conservative friend who, in line with Fox News and most conservatives, was confident that Romney was going to win in a landslide.)

Why were conservatives shocked on election night? It’s not as if the facts weren’t out there for all to read. Virtually all of the non-right leaning pollsters, pundits and politicians, mostly using math and common sense interpretations of data, predicted a win for Obama. Nate Silvers, in his New York Times 538 Blog, led the pack, correctly calling 50 out of 50 states, but was by no means the only voice of reason in the media. Why were all these really smart people so wrong?

I think the answer lies in a dangerous combination of two uniquely conservative dynamics: The GOP’s tendency to deny facts, and the closed information loop they’re stuck in.

Despite all the math and data available to them in the months leading up to the election, republican experts continued to peddle their religion on Fox News and in other conservative venues, confidently explaining to their followers that all the exit polls were just plain wrong. And conservatives, as a general rule, refused to consider facts that contradicted what they wanted to believe.

Consider the following confidently stated predictions from people who should have known better:

  • Fox news commentator Dick Morris: Romney 325 electoral votes, Obama 213
  • Conservative commentator George F. Will: Romney 321, Obama 217
  • Conservative journalist Michael Barone: Romney 315, Obama 223
  • Conservative activist Dean Chambers, who runs the website UnSkewed Polls, where he recalibrates polls to offset what he believes are misjudgments about sampling: Romney 311, Obama 227
  • Republican strategist and former Bush adviser Karl Rove: Romney 279, Obama 259
  • And many more!

In his best-selling book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality, Chris Mooney makes the well-researched case that conservatives, by nature and brain chemistry, have more of a tendency than others to believe things that are contrary to proven fact. (To my conservative friends: I know that is a terrible thing to say, and I apologize to you. I believe that most of you are very smart, reasonable, thoughtful people. I’m not going to summarize the book here…but I encourage you to read it.)

Many studies indicate that people with a conservative ideology, more so than moderates or liberals, tend to hold to their own ideology despite facts (not just opinions or arguments) to the contrary. And, counter-intuitively, the more educated a conservative is, the less likely that person is to consider or even expose themselves to views that oppose their closely held ideologies and beliefs, while the more educated a liberal or moderate is, the more likely that person is to consider views opposed to their closely held beliefs.

And so we end up with some very smart, very educated people who, statistically, more often than liberals deny facts in the face of evidence and science and math.

As Rachel Maddow put it the day after the election:

  • President Obama really was born in Hawaii
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics did not make-up a fake unemployment rate last month.
  • The Congressional Research Service really can find no evidence that cutting taxes on rich people grows the economy.
  • The polls were not skewed to over-sample Democrats (and Nate Silver was not making up fake projections about the election to make conservatives feel bad. He was doing math.)
  • Climate change is real.
  • Rape really does cause pregnancy sometimes.
  • Evolution really is a thing.
  • No one is taking away anyone’s guns.
  • Taxes haven’t gone up.
  • Saddam Hussein didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.
  • The moon landing was real.
  • FEMA isn’t building concentration camps.
  • UN election observers aren’t taking over Texas.
  • Moderate reforms of the regulations on the insurance industry and the financial services industry are not the same thing as communism.

A study by the Program on International Attitudes (PIPA) reported that viewers of Fox News were more likely than viewers of other news networks to hold three purported misperceptions:

  • 67% of Fox viewers believed that the “U.S. found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization.”
  • 33% of Fox viewers believed that “The U.S. found Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.”
  • 35% of Fox viewers believed that “the majority of people in the world favor the U.S. having gone to war with Iraq.”

In general, PIPA concluded that viewers of Fox News were more likely to be misinformed on specific issues when compared to viewers of comparable media, that this likelihood increased proportionally to the frequency of viewing Fox News and that these findings showed statistical significance.

Other study results:

  • A 2010 Stanford University survey found that more exposure to Fox News was associated with more rejection of many mainstream scientists’ claims about global warming and with less trust in scientists in general.
  • A 2011 Kaiser Family Foundation survey on U.S. misperceptions about health care reform found that Fox News viewers scored lower for factual knowledge than other news viewers.
  • A 2010 Ohio State University study of public misperceptions about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” found that viewers who relied on Fox News were 66% more likely to believe incorrect rumors than those with “low reliance” on Fox News.
  • Content analysis shows that the ratio of conservative to liberal guests on Fox News over a 9-month study period was 50:8
  • The Project on Excellence in Journalism report in 2006 showed that 68% of Fox cable stories contained personal opinions, as compared to MSNBC at 27% and CNN at 4%. The content analysis portion of their 2005 report also concluded that “Fox was measurably more one-sided than the other networks, and Fox journalists were more opinionated, expressing conservative ideology on the air.” (So much for their motto: Fair and Balanced.)

fauxnews_450And two more – to me, the epitome of both fact denial and the closed loop:

  • In 2011, a study by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that Fox News viewers were less well informed than people who did not watch any news at all.
  • Several studies (sourced in Mooney’s book) indicate that the majority of people who watch Fox News “believe that they are better informed than the average person” and that “there is no need for them to gain different perspectives by viewing or listening to other news sources.”
  1. Joe says:

    Mike, I don’t know where you find the time, man. Great piece. I have no real comment because you have so well documented everything, I don’t know where the debate would be. I do have to say that I am surprised and disappointed with George Will getting it so wrong. He is generally a conservative I disagree with, but respect.

  2. […] base (MSNBC is unapologetically liberal), studies continue to show that FOX lies constantly. (See previous articles.)  Thank the gods that their ratings are in sharp decline.  I personally think that FOX is […]

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