But what about those of us who do follow the news? The problem there is ...
Ask the average person what's wrong with government and you'll hear all about corrupt politicians, corporate lobbyists and shady backroom deals. But, of course, we elected those corrupt politicians, and the more you look at the situation, the more it appears that as people, we are just really bad at democracy. After all, science proves that ...
In the middle of the heated health care debate in 2010, the anchors at Fox News got a memo from the bosses telling them to start referring to the Democrats' plan as "government-run health insurance" rather than use the term "public option," which everyone else was using.
Why? Because CBS and NBC both ran polls showing that when you call it the "public" plan, up to 75 percent of the people are in favor -- after all, everybody likes public parks and public libraries, etc. It's a friendly word. But when polls inserted the word "government," support plummeted to 43 percent. The Exact. Same. Plan. You know, the same way that a lot more people bought canola oil after they changed the name from "rape seed oil."
"Rape was a good word before you humans fucked it up."
Likewise, only 34 percent of Americans say they strongly support "homosexuals" in the military. But a majority -- 51 percent -- strongly support "gay men and lesbians" serving in the military. That's right: You can increase the strongest support by a third by simply avoiding the "H" word. The "strongly oppose" group goes down by a third.
You can do this with virtually any issue. Try it (if you don't mind ruining your opinion of the voting public, that is). Ask us if public worker unions should be able to negotiate for their pay and people say yes. Change the wording to ask if they should be able to negotiate for higher pay, and opinion turns against them. What, did the first bunch think workers were negotiating for lower pay?
"We demand lower pay and less respect, and we won't stop working double shifts until we get it!"
Probably not. They probably thought nothing about the issue at all until the moment they were asked. We can't be educated on every issue, and the "don't know" option in a poll makes us sound like morons. So the respondent's brain probably just slapped together an opinion based on how the question made him feel at that moment. Remember that in most surveys, the most common unspoken answer is always, "Whatever it takes to get you off the phone, buddy. My burrito is getting cold."
"Yes, fine. Whatever. I support unrestricted eugenics programs for brown people. Can I get back to my vodka and soap operas now?"
But what about those of us who do follow the news? The problem there is ...
So, you figure that the above results are simply skewed by people who are watching Cake Boss instead of the nightly news. But isn't there a smart core of people who keep the TV on CNN and thus know their shit? Not according to a study done during the 2010 election, which concluded that people who watch television news are more likely to get the facts wrong than the people who just flip past it on the way to watch wrestling.
"Star Trek re-runs make us comparatively well-informed voters!"
Whether they got their info from Fox News, MSBNC, the networks or even NPR, people who relied on those sources daily did worse when answering factual questions about election issues than people who used them only sporadically.
Why? Well, part of it is that if a politician makes a bullshit claim, the news still has to report it. So along with the hard information, you're getting spin, talking points, sound bites and other bullshit issued by people whose job it is to make you vote their way regardless of the facts. At some level, people are aware this is happening -- there are countless polls showing Americans don't have favorable views of television news. But TV also remains the country's largest source of news, which means there are a lot of people who don't trust it but then turn around and rely on it anyway.
He may be full of shit, but listening to him beats the hell out of talking to your family.
But it's not all the news media's fault. When we do hear the facts, we have countless defenses against them. Picture the facts as zombies, and your brain as the house where the survivors are holed up.
For instance, the vast majority of us think the news media are politically biased. You could simply say, "Well, duh, that means they probably are biased." But the problem is that all of us think the media are biased against us, regardless of our political affiliations. It's called the hostile media effect -- if you are passionate about your beliefs, you'll always perceive the news as being skewed against you. Researchers can show two opposing groups the same news clip, and both will come away saying that the clip was horribly skewed against their side. And even weirder, when later given a quiz about the facts presented in the clip, the two groups actually remember it differently.
"And then Glenn Beck screamed for 19 straight minutes and took a giant shit on his desk."
Then we have the curse that is confirmation bias -- the horrible brain glitch that makes countless superstitions possible. This is when the brain latches onto and remembers pieces of information that confirm what we believe but dismisses those that don't. The news media can dutifully report 10 straight studies that prove global warming, but then when the 11th casts some doubt, the skeptic can say, "See! I told you the scientists think it's bullshit!"
They've even done studies where a mixture of liberals and conservatives were presented with intentionally incorrect reports about hot-button issues (tax cuts, Iraq). When presented with authoritative corrections -- hard, inarguable evidence -- correcting the inaccuracies, the subjects continued to stick by the incorrect information if it agreed with their point of view. Nothing could change their minds. "What? Reality doesn't conform to my opinion? Shoot it in the head! Board the windows!"
"You'd best take them scientific studies back where ya' found 'em."
OK, so why can't people get their information from the experts? You know, the pundits! They have to be better than the news, right?
On some level, you probably guessed that professional "shout political things angrily at the camera" guys like Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck are, on some level, full of shit. But a statistical analysis on just how full of shit they are found results that were downright startling.
Punditry is all about predictions -- claiming boldly that if ___________ comes to power, the economy will be in ruins within a year, or if ___________ legislation passes, the nation will turn into a fascist nightmare (or a lawless orgy, or whatever). A 20-year study of pundits and their prognostications found that they performed significantly worse than, say, a monkey making political predictions by throwing its own feces at a chart. The hard-line partisan pundits were right a dismal 12 percent of the time.
The monkey had 19 percent accuracy -- 24 percent on the days he ate a lot of fiber.
But the really scary statistic is that the more famous a political pundit is, the worse his predictions are. There's a reason the Becks and Olbermanns of the world are the pundits everyone's familiar with: They're not giving us accurate predictions, but they are giving us predictions we like to hear, whether we care to admit it or not. Not just predictions we agree with, but bold, scary and outrageous predictions. They make for good entertainment.
The same study found that less-partisan pundits performed better (about as well as chance, aka the shit-tossing monkey). But these types also hedge their bets ("If X happens, America's economy might collapse, unless Z also happens, though I could be wrong"), which bores audiences to death. It's no surprise you don't find them at the top of the ratings.
Fair, well-reasoned political discourse doesn't show up well on a chalkboard.
No, we will only reward you for being full of shit. Are we starting to get a clearer picture of the voting public here? It's not what most people assume (aka, that everybody is just ignorant and obsessed with celebrity bullshit). There's an intentional bias toward bad information.
Why? Well ...
Think fast: In your opinion, what group of people is the most dishonest and ignorant?
And you can't just say "politicians."
Just from the demographics of our readership, a whole bunch of you said, "Tea Party members" or "Southern conservatives." And that's fine; they say the same about you. Polls consistently show that we think those who disagree with us politically are simply bad people, on a personal level.
And if you just read Atlas Shrugged, you now think that about everyone but you.
Now take a look at this study, which compared a person's average political knowledge with their primary source of news. The results were surprising: The most knowledgeable groups were viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Hot on their heels? Fans of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.
Never mind the fact that it's a pretty bad sign when the most politically educated people in the country are relying on either comedy shows or political pundits for their news. The key is that these outlets are primarily about ruthlessly mocking and dismissing the other side. Yet they attract more knowledgeable voters, not less.
"We're scientists, and we don't trust any pundit who doesn't scream 80 percent of his dialogue."
So there appears to be a horrible process that works like this:
A. In order to want to learn more about political issues, you must be enthusiastic about politics;
B. Enthusiasm about politics means you are more likely to be emotionally invested in the issues;
C. Emotional investment in the issues means a more negative attitude toward anyone who disagrees;
D. A negative attitude toward someone means being more dismissive of his point of view and being less open to changing your mind based on anything he says.
In the world of psychology, they call this attitude polarization; the more times the average person spends thinking about a subject, the more extreme his position becomes -- even if he doesn't run across any new information. Simply repeating your beliefs to yourself makes those beliefs stronger.
No, really? Who could have guessed that?
And it gets even worse when we wind up in a group -- say, on an Internet message board full of people who agree with us, where we can all congratulate each other on being right. Researchers call that group polarization (in public -- in private, they call it a "circle jerk").
Of course, once you get to the point where you're rooting so hard for one side of an issue that you're just short of painting your chest in team colors, then all that time spent reading up on the issues stops being about becoming an informed citizen and becomes more about accumulating ammunition for the next argument.
"If I just Google hard enough, I can make the facts go away!"
All of which seems downright crazy when you consider ...
Ever since the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords by a clearly crazy gunman, it has become distasteful to talk about the political opposition using murder metaphors. It's turning out to be an incredibly hard habit to break -- after all, things had gotten to the point that a politician couldn't discuss filling a pothole without referring to it as a new Holocaust. To listen to everyone from candidates to pundits to the guy at the counter of the 7-Eleven, the whole Western world is on the verge of bloody revolution.
"We're not sure what we're so pissed about, but something is bound to come up eventually."
Yet for two groups of people who are supposed to be so ideologically opposed that nothing short of the extermination of the other side will fix it, they sure have a lot in common.
For example, a study asked Americans of various demographics and political stances about the ideal way they feel wealth should be distributed across the country. Young or old, male or female, Republican or Democrat, the answers they provided were almost identical. Despite all of the talk of the radical left about overturning a corrupt system, despite all of the "screw the poor, only the producers should thrive" Ayn Rand philosophy of those on the opposite end, virtually all want to see wealth evenly spread across income groups (or at least way more evenly than it is now).
That's just one issue. We could list many more, like how Republicans and Democrats have similar attitudes toward how the deficit should be reduced, or the need for alternative sources of energy. Economy, energy and budget -- probably the three biggest domestic issues any industrialized nation is facing. And we pretty much agree on them.
"But they're right for the wrong reasons!"
Not that they know or admit it. For instance, the same voters who say they want cuts in government spending oppose cuts when presented with specifics. They report that they are in favor of cutting the size of government, but they object to cuts in Medicare, Social Security, the military or anything having to do with security (also known as basically the whole budget).
Don't get us wrong; it's not that there are no disagreements, it's just that we vastly overestimate the degree to which we disagree, because the differences are all we focus on.
A big reason has to be that it really is the only thing that keeps the news interesting for us. Without conflict, there is no drama. Without drama, we get bored. We don't want the news to just give us information -- we want a story, and every story needs a villain, a battle between good and evil. So as soon as we hear about some complex legislation or crisis, Step 1 is to figure out who the villains are and start blindly hating them. If we can't find anyone, then the story is boring, and we stop watching it.
"Ain't no moral ambiguity on The A-Team."
Knowing this, the news media decades ago started covering politics like a war, or a sport (in the biz, they call it "horse race coverage") where the reporting is entirely about which side is winning -- at the expense of figuring out the actual impact the resulting election or legislation will have on you as a human being. We tune in for "Us vs. Them," so that's what they give us.
Knowing that, it's kind of hard to draw any other conclusion: Democracy is screwed up because while agreement and compromise make the world better, bitter rivalry is just more fun.
For more mysteries explained by science, check out 6 Things That Annoy You Every Day (Explained by Science) and 6 Sex Myths as Explained by Science.
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