There Must Be a Reason…

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

How NOT to conduct honest research.


Sociologists representing four major research institutions have published a study in the journal Sociological Inquiry examining how we support our false beliefs. They examined the false belief of many voters during the 2004 general election that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the Saudi/Al Queda attacks on September 11, 2001.

These researchers concluded that the false beliefs were not caused by lies told repeatedly by the Bush Administration, the New York Times, WaPo, FoxNews and assorted other mainstream media in print, broadcast, cable and radio, but reflected a mere quirk of the individuals’ own personal need to justify a war that was already being waged. Is this yet another example of dishonest publicly funded research, bought by historical revisionists instead of Big Pharma this time?

The researchers named their study “There Must Be a Reason: Osama, Saddam and Inferred Justification,” and claim that their findings offer a serious challenge to democracy. The inference from that claim being, of course, that regular people are just too damned stupid and dishonest with themselves to justify letting them vote. Wow.

While it is a trivial observation that people tend to believe what they want to believe, and seek out information sources that support and/or confirm their already-held beliefs, I am certainly not convinced that Ph.D. sociologists should have so pointedly ignored the facts in this particular case of “What’s Wrong With WingNuts?” It was the Bush-Cheney administration that invented the lies, started the war, and was backed up in that false propaganda effort by the mainstream media establishment. Seems like giving political liars and media propagandists a free pass on misleading the public does serious damage to the credibility of erstwhile social science research!

The wingnut teabaggers who scream at congressional town hall meetings that they want the government to stay out of their Medicare did not suddenly come to the conclusion on their own that Medicare isn’t socialized, government-run health insurance. They have been repeatedly TOLD that by liars. They represent a small minority of citizens – the Republican ‘base’ of fundamentalists and certifiable morons – obviously vulnerable to the propaganda aimed at them. Yet in the sociopolitical reality of the world’s oldest democracy, this unfortunate class of intellectually challenged citizens should not be a big concern. Let’s face it. Approximately 15 to 20% of Americans are mentally ill at any given time, and at least 15% have double-digit IQs. That’s just a demographic fact, something doctors of sociology should certainly know better than most. They are no more a threat to democracy than the mentally ill and/or deficient have ever been.

By blaming the individuals for their demonstrably erroneous beliefs rather than the professional liars and propagandists who programmed erroneous beliefs into them and reinforced those lies constantly, this sort of “research” doesn’t look to be serious professional quality research at all. It looks a lot more like historical revisionism. The researchers interviewed their subjects well after those subjects had invested emotion in the correctness of the lies they’d been fed to justify a war of aggression in Iraq. They did not examine the actual sources of those opinions at all. Quite strange.

Perhaps a more worthwhile publicly supported sociological research project would have examined the lies, false statements, intelligence cooking, blatant propaganda, outright treason, and even the use of torture to force false confessions to support a fraudulent link in the push toward war in Iraq. THEN maybe examine the effect of all this high-level criminality on the least intelligent members of the voting body politic – to reach pertinent conclusions about the harmful effects of institutional and corporate political propaganda on the conduct of democratic government.

Because THAT is the true threat to democracy.

UPDATE: Please see this NYT op-ed from June of 2008 on the actual neuroscience (and psychology) of false beliefs by two actual neuroscientists, wherein they also note how effectively political propagandists can make use of the way people’s brains work in order to cause the very results the above-mentioned sociologist researchers were so ‘surprised’ by. No doubt because they didn’t bother to do any research at all into the known and well-documented reasons people believe lies and fabricate reasons for why they believe them over all evidence to the contrary –

Your Brain Lies To You

In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Holmes erroneously assumed that ideas are more likely to spread if they are honest. Our brains do not naturally obey this admirable dictum, but by better understanding the mechanisms of memory perhaps we can move closer to Holmes’s ideal.


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    • Joy B. on August 24, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    …of what passes for research these days isn’t bought and paid for. Or that a Ph.D. in sociology isn’t about as useful as a Ph.D. in philosophy. Or even that research that doesn’t examine causes might happen to come to wrong conclusions about causes (though that’s all true).

    It’s the pure, unadulterated DUH here that dazzles me. Scientists – including, on the research university level, sociologists – want so desperately to be big-I Important to the sociopolitical world, and have more clout than the average dunce on sociopolitical policy. But when they come up with transparent junk this dumb, it’s pretty hard to take them seriously.

    I have been checking ScienceBlogs all day to see if any of the wonks will call this study on its stupid premises and ridiculous conclusions. So far, nada.

  1. they’re interviewing people who believe Saddam did 9/11.  Right there, the sample is cretins, morans, numbnuts, and imbeciles.  I think the real question is why they have the ‘deeply held’ belief in the first place… not that they can’t be talked out of it.

    I am reminded of Dr. Venkmann (Bill Murray) in Ghostbusters:

    Dr. Peter Venkman: I’m studying the effects of negative reinforcement on ESP ability

    Male Student: The effect? I’ll tell you what the effect is, it’s pissing me off!

  2. That’s where the money is.

    It seems like once a week or so there is a news release about a scientific study that shows some big pharma drug also reduces acne besides lowering blood pressure or something. Another “just follow the $$$$$”.

  3. From project censored we have “Infotainment Society”

    A check of the most popular blogs shows that most humans are primarily self centered and self absorbed.  One must get to treehugger and dailykos at numbers 15 and 17 to start generating any concern for fellow humans outside of useless gadgets or celebrity buzz.

    Last but not least is our food supply and the interesting topic of excitotoxins.

    Oh, so sorry I left out.


    Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

    • Inky99 on August 25, 2009 at 4:15 am

    That seems to be what they are saying.

    Because it was 67% who believed that there was a direct connection between Saddam and 9/11.  

    Yet only half are below average.   See how smart I am!?

    So they’re just plain bloody wrong about this.

    Who ARE these people that come up with this SHIT?

    • pico on August 25, 2009 at 8:13 am

    if there’s one thing I learned about reporting based on studies, it’s that you have to go back to the original study if you want to make sense of their conclusions.  Short articles like this are structured around easily digestible sound bites, and they can completely distill the argument that the actual paper is going for.

    One thing the scholars mention is that Hussein became a target in public consciousness long before the Bush administration began this particular misdirection, due to a type of polling bias called forced-choices (emphasis in original):

    This is particularly striking in a Harris poll taken soon after the 9/11 attacks: “In an open-ended question which asked ‘If Congress were to declare war, who do you think it should declare war against or aren’t you sure?’ 61% said they were not sure, 25% named either Afghanistan, the Taliban, or Osama bin Laden, and only 6% mentioned Iraq or Saddam Hussein. Yet when presented with a forced-choice question later in the same poll, fully 78% said that it was very or somewhat likely that ‘Saddam Hussein is personally involved in Tuesday’s terrorist attacks.'” (Althaus and Largio, 2004: 798). The open-ended question yielded a 6% response that Iraq or Saddam Hussein should be the object of war, while the forced-choice question found 78% agreeing in Saddam Hussein’s culpability, in the same poll.

    That’s in 2001, whereas the Bush administration begins linking Saddam and Al Qaeda at the earliest in late 2002.  78% of the public was already willing to link Saddam to the attacks.

    This is nothing new; it’s been noted in a previous study that really needs to be read (pdf!) if only for the amount of raw data on display:

    The shift from Osama to Saddam occurred in media coverage during August of 2002, but began four months earlier in the public statements of President George Bush. As Osama bin Laden faded in news coverage and all but disappeared in President Bush’s public statements, clear efforts were made by the Bush administration to replace Osama bin Laden as America’s foremost enemy by linking Saddam Hussein to the War on Terror.

    Yet the American public needed no convincing on the possibility that Hussein was involved in 9/11. In polls taken in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, open-ended questions showed that Americans were not spontaneously blaming Iraq for the attacks. But forced-choice questions showed that as many as 8 in 10 Americans thought that Hussein was probably behind them.

    So the study you discuss in this diary isn’t suggesting anything new, it’s just trying to understand what mechanisms cause that to happen.

    Key to their argument are the responses that the researchers got from their interview sample, when asked point-blank why were at war with Iraq:

    Um there’s one gal, um, that I was talking to and she don’t believe that we should stay in Iraq, like, right now. She don’t believe in of all those innocent people dying. I believe that also but there must be a reason why we’re still over there or we wouldn’t be over there still. We would’ve pulled all our troops outta there. Or at least most of them anyway.

    What struck the researchers as odd was that this was the most common response to their question: not a repetition of Republican talking points about the Saddam-Al Qaeda connection, but a post facto justification that if we’re there, it must be for a good reason.  

    It’s not that the scholars dismiss the Bush administration’s lies as ineffectual (and though I know some research can be bought and paid for, I take a little bit of umbrage at dismissing it as ‘transparent junk’ without having read it); it’s that they think the mechanisms by which the war’s supporters were operating were different than the expected political ones.

    In fact, most of the quotes in the Science Daily article deal with a small part of the actual paper: why it is that respondents held to their beliefs even after being confronted with ‘proof’ to the contrary.  Meanwhile another large chunk of the research dealt with the reality/belief about Bush’s tax cuts, and the similar mechanism by which people rationalize their political stances.

    Here’s the big conclusion:

    This suggests what might be called a semiotic explanation of the resilience of the belief that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11: it was not that the public decided based on independent evidence that this was the case, and then supported the war; rather, for some respondents, the war served as a situational cue, suggesting a culprit for 9/11.

    That seems to be the case both for the forced question polling immediately after 9/11, and for the continued and somewhat baffling belief that the two are connected even with the former President and Vice President finally admitting otherwise.  It would make the Bush administration guilty of exploiting a preexisting situation rather than fabricating one from the ground up, which doesn’t strike me as any better – or as revisionism, since the polling data seems to support this.

    • Joy B. on August 25, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    …to what people choose to believe – and the causes of their beliefs, and their reluctance to care to know the truth. I changed schools in the middle of the 7th grade from New York to Oklahoma when my father was transferred. I was taught in science class in New York that year (with an out-of-date textbook and a teacher who proclaimed it Absolute Scientific Truth) that the universe had been around forever just the way it is now and everything operated like a peaceful clockwork that would continue to last forever.

    My school in Oklahoma was lucky enough to have new textbooks. So in that science class I was taught (by a teacher who proclaimed it Absolute Scientific Truth) that the universe began some billions of years ago from nothing in a huge explosion called the “Big Bang.”

    I thought this quite funny, since my father happened to be a scientist (who worked with NASA on occasion) who had been a Bang supporter all his professional life. The evidence started seriously accumulating in the 1930s, after all. Of 5 children, 4 of us went on to become scientists too, my sister and I had the first chem set in town in New York and managed to blow out the basement window for the first time when I was in third grade (Dad was SO proud!). So I also already knew that science doesn’t deal in “proof” and nothing it proposes to explain nature is Absolute Truth.

    I am willing to bet all these many years later that at LEAST half of the kids I went to the first half of 7th grade with in rural upstate New York still believe to this day the universe is eternal steady state. What possible real need do most of them have to know or care that science now thinks there was a bang? I’m quite sure those who lived through puberty went on to become productive members of society as dairy farmers, accountants, schoolteachers, car salesmen, etc.

    Quite a lot of what people learn in school is authority-based, they CHOOSE to believe it. Or not, so long as they can pass the test. Most forget 9 tenths of it almost immediately, and it never again darkens their psyche. All anyone need do is look at the successes of outrageously dissonant fundamentalism and bizarro cults in this country to know that many people can be easily duped, and will choose to believe bullshit no matter WHAT the truth is. Add that to the fact that public education is so lousy that a majority of Americans who graduated high school can’t find California or Iraq on a map, and no one should be surprised at the stupidity.

    • Joy B. on August 25, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    …that examines the FACT that those silly health care reform myths are all the way to “strong roots” now:

    Healthcare myths now have strong roots.

    This means that the WingNuts who believe whatever they’re told by FoxNews and the hate radio comedians have already invested emotion in the falsehoods they’ve chosen to believe. You know – death panels, free abortions and sex change operations, etc. This of course confirms what I said was ALREADY KNOWN about why WingNuts still believe Saddam was involved in 9-11, and the complete vacuousness of the sociological study that blames it all on on-the-spot fabrications years after the fact.

    This is playing right now, prime time, in front of everybody. These people BELIEVE all these lies and simply do not care what the truth is. That’s a fact, nobody in their right mind would argue about it, given the ridiculous evidence coming in daily from the town hall teabaggers.

    Yet we are supposed to believe it’s “science” that will poll these people 2 or 3 years down the line about their belief in Death Panels that don’t exist outside InsuranceWorld, when they make up some reason why they still believe a lie after the truth is plainly evident to everyone who cares to know it.

    That’s psychology, not sociology. The only sociological aspect of any of it is how many citizens are certifiable WingNuts, and whether or not they also qualify as mentally ill and/or deficient. Though I think the answer to that is obvious too, so I don’t think tax money should be spent on investigating that phenomenon further beyond the cognitive and psychological aspects of this particular form of mental illness.

  4. although it seems “much ado about nothing,” to me. Looks like these sociologists needed a subject matter to concentrate on and, hopefully, make some kind of an astonishing impact on people’s perceptions as to how they arrived at this thought or thought.  What a waste.

    The one thing the Bush gang were good at was repetition — repeat something long enough and it becomes “truth” even if it’s a total out and out lie.  Repetitious propaganda seeps into the mind, much like a TV commercial urging you to buy their product because you “need” it, and the consumer becomes convinced that he does, indeed, need it and goes out and buys the product.  Subliminals are “planted” and the thought or action derived therefrom for the most part.

    Thanks, Joy B.!  

    • banger on August 26, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Are people not responsible for being in a stupid enough state of mind that enables them to be manipulated?

    Anyway, my experience is that the right simply exploits beliefs already there and enhances them–sort of fills in the details and make these beliefs strong and “normal”. That’s the job of the radio personalities and Fox News.

    Most people, at least in this country, are varying degrees of stupid (literally–in a stupor) about most things. I don’t exclude myself in that either. Politics is just not one of the things I’m stupid about because I’ve studied it and social science in general all my life.

    Most social-science research I’ve seen has pointed out how easy it is to get people to do stupid, nasty, and violent things if led to it by consensus of a group or “authorities”. We are naturally tribal people and resonate to tribal vibes. The current right-wing millieu is very tribal–they believe things that are the opposite of the beliefs of the tribes they hate. Anti-environmentalism is a case and point–people that “conservatives” hate are pro-environmental therefore the right (who identify culturally with lower-middle-class whites) have to be actively and obnoxiously anti-environmental. Health care is the same–because Europeans and intellectuals seem to favor a decent and well-run system they will thumb their noses (helps relieve the tension of their lack of education) at it and be willing to continue a system that harms them more than the “liberals” they hate.  

  5. to the ever present 30% ignorant, fearful, and hateful demographic being the excuse by which they define American’s. The pols love this demographic and pander to it. Contrary to what they say they really like keeping voter registration low. both parties fish in the same hole for low information votes and the fearful demographic that wants to be defined as the center. Most non voters are not apathetic a they would have you believe. Obama’s broke the pattern and for me this is the only hope he offers. If you appeal to peoples intelligence it’s harder to bamboozle them with an agenda/policy that does not make sense.

    Btw… This small demographic of people, the FOX crowd is a desirable sought after target for marketeers. They buy in a block, are loyal to brands they perceive as American or theirs, and have loathing for the ‘elites’. They may be a small portion of us but they are consistent and easily bamboozled. Our business is statistics for market research and I’m always amazed at how easy it is to get people to work against their own best interests, let alone the common good.    

  6. I am far less interested in the link to Iraq and 911.  What I am interested in is the massive now very global movement blatantly saying 911 was a deliberate co-ordinated false flag operation.

    Three buildings imploding upon themselves,reduced to mere nanoparticulate dust at the speed of 9.8 meters per second and people saying I am totally full of shit, a treasonous unpatriotic terrorist asshole simply because the real demolition speed was actually 9.2 meters per second.

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