Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Real Partisan Divide

During the past few years, innumerable commentators have lamented the partisan divide in Washington. Although many politicians campaign on their willingness to “reach across the aisle”, when they get to Congress the two parties are more polarized than ever before. A study of Congressional voting patterns shows that the overlap among liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, which characterized Congress in the 1970s, and was still apparent in the 1990s, has entirely disappeared. Measuring political ideology by roll call votes, the most liberal Republicans in Congress are more conservative than the most conservative Democrats.

The polarized parties represent a polarized voting public. Another study shows Americans of the two parties moving further apart since the 1990s. More people are consistent liberals or conservatives than before. More than twice as many Americans as in earlier decades, in both parties, see the other party as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” Conservatives tend to be more disdainful of liberals than the other way around, more likely to have friends who mostly share their political views, more likely to want to live in a place where most people share their views, and more likely to be unhappy if an immediate family member married across party lines.

What can explain increasing levels of partisanship? Here’s one answer: Americans of the right and left no longer get the same news.

Before the advent of cable TV and the internet in the 1980s, news meant newspapers, national or local, or the major TV networks. Local newspapers got national news stories from the national papers or from national news services, like Associated Press or United Press International. The goal of these news sources was consistent, although not always achieved: to produce non-partisan information about the nation and the world without editorial comment or bias.

The news landscape has not only expanded rapidly, but changed in nature. Cable TV news networks are often explicitly partisan and internet sites providing news even more so. Talk radio, which had existed since the early 20th century, expanded in the 1970s. Politically oriented radio shows with explicit partisan viewpoints exploded in the 1990s because of the repeal of the Federal Communication Commission’s “fairness doctrine” in 1987. After 1949, broadcasters who wanted a license had to address issues of public importance and had to present a balance of viewpoints. The repeal of the fairness doctrine allowed broadcasters to present consistently partisan viewpoints. Following the success of Rush Limbaugh in the 1990s, conservative talk has come to dominate the airwaves. Cable TV networks are more evenly balanced, with MSNBC at the left end and FOX on the right.

The result has been that liberals and conservatives absorb different information about the world. Liberals get their news mainly from CNN, National Public Radio, the New York Times, and MSNBC. Conservatives overwhelmingly favor FOX News.

Even more striking are the levels of distrust of the other side’s news sources. 81% of consistent liberals distrust FOX News, while 75% of consistent conservatives distrust MSNBC. Those results are not surprising. What I think is a bigger problem is that conservatives distrust nearly all broad sources of national and international news.

The most trusted sources of news for conservatives are FOX News, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, and the Blaze (Glenn Beck’s news network). Among these, only FOX News actually presents news, as opposed to partisan commentary. The only other source of broad news more trusted than distrusted by conservatives is the Wall Street Journal, which only 30% say they trust.

Conservatives distrust all other sources of reported news. Three times as many conservatives distrust the three major TV networks as trust them. Five times as many distrust the Washington Post, and only 3% trust the New York Times, while half distrust it. Conservatives distrust USA Today, the BBC, and CNN. These news sources make up the so-called “mainstream media”. Conservatives have long attacked the major news sources as biased to the left, even when most newspapers endorsed Republican candidates.

The editorials in the Washington Post and the New York Times are liberal these days. But aside from that 1% of their content, these newspapers, and a host of other national sources of news, strive for something disdained by Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and Drudge: non-partisan information gathered by professional reporters. The most conservative Americans don’t want to hear or read that. They seek to become like the most vocal critic of the “lamestream media”, Sarah Palin: ignorant of basic information about the world beyond her front porch. They are absorbing Limbaugh’s racism and sexism, and Beck’s conspiracy theories, without the basic information which would enable them to evaluate these biases.

The self-imposed isolation of conservatives from broad-based news sources and their focus for their understanding of the world on the most ideologically driven commentators of the far right, like Rush Limbaugh, is dangerous. Conservative distrust of everyone who reports information they don’t want to believe makes rational discussion and political compromise impossible. That distrust is self-protection, but also self-deprivation. Without a common basis of knowledge about the world, we will not find our common ground as Americans.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 28, 2014

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Global Warming Hoax

The history of scientific hoaxes is often amusing. In 1813, Charles Redhoffer created a Aperpetual motion machine@, a device that created more energy than it used. After hundreds of people paid a dollar to see it spinning around, Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat, grew suspicious of its uneven motion. When pieces of wood were removed from the wall behind the machine, a belt drive made of cat-gut was revealed, leading to an upper floor, where an old man was turning a crank with one hand and eating bread with the other.

In 1869 well diggers on William Newell=s farm in Cardiff, New York, found an enormous petrified man, 10 feet long. Newell set up a tent over the ACardiff Giant@ and charged 25 cents to see it. People came in droves. P.T. Barnum offered to buy it for his traveling show for $50,000, but the owners refused, so Barnum secretly had a copy made and displayed it as the original, claiming that the other was a fraud. David Hannum, a member of the syndicate which was making money on the original, remarked, AThere=s a sucker born every minute.@

The Cardiff Giant was actually a piece of carved and treated gypsum, created by the atheist George Hull, who wanted to embarrass a local minister who had quoted Genesis to prove that giants once walked the earth. Hull confessed his hoax two months after the Adiscovery@.

In 1912, a British amateur archaeologist claimed he had pieces of a skull belonging to an evolutionary link between apes and humans. Named APiltdown man@ after the gravel pit where these pieces were supposedly unearthed, most of the scientific community believed the find to be genuine. Only gradually were doubts expressed, until it was proved in the 1950s that the pieces were a human skull, an orangutan=s jawbone, and fossilized chimpanzee teeth. By then it was too late to identify the hoaxers.

These hoaxes share some common traits. An unexpected Adiscovery@ is accompanied by a plausible story about how it happened. The hoaxer has answers to initial objections, but eventually enough questions are raised by experts about the story=s details that it falls apart. The hoax can fool the public, but not the experts.

Hoaxers thrive when political ideology influences science. Joseph Stalin hated the Western science of genetics. When the biologist Trofim Lysenko denied the importance of genes and claimed that acquired characteristics could be inherited, and that he could thus create strains of wheat which could withstand Russian winters, Stalin gave him the power to dominate Soviet biology. Lysenko purged anyone who did not agree with him and set Soviet scientific research back for decades.

So we come to the big scientific hoax of our time, the Aglobal warming hoax@. Put those words into a Google search, and you will find the major organizations which claim that there is no human-caused global warming. In 2003, Nebraska Senator Jim Inhofe said before Congress that Aman‑made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,@ and he has not altered that position. The politically correct view for any Republican running for national office is to agree with Inhofe.

It is a fact that every national science academy across the globe has endorsed the idea of global warming. Studies of thousands of scientific papers have shown that over 95% argue in favor of global warming.

So if there is a global warming hoax, it is being perpetrated by virtually all the world=s scientists and governments. The following organizations must also be in on the hoax: the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, the Presbyterian Church, National Geographic, Nature Conservancy, the insurance industry, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, League of Conservation Voters, and too many others to name.

This would be the greatest hoax ever, because unlike every other hoax, it is being committed by all the world=s experts, which is precisely what the global warming deniers are claiming. It is hardly coincidence that those who claim that global warming is a hoax, all have a significant financial or political stake in preventing any action against global warming. Behind the newspaper articles, the radio broadcasts, the tiny number of paid-off scientists, and the politicians are the major oil companies like ExxonMobil, the coal industry, Koch Industries, but also a much larger sector of Adark money@ funneled through untraceable pass-through organizations. The Aindependent@ organizations which deny global warming, like the Heartland Institute, get their funding from these sources and from conservative political PACs. Before the Heartland Institute attacked the science behind global warming, it attacked scientists who said smoking causes cancer.

The political result is that the global warming hoax idea is believed by conservatives. In 2012, 71% of Avery conservative@ respondents, 52% of Asomewhat conservative@ but only 13% of liberals believed global warming was a hoax. As Bruce Sterling wrote at Wired online, AWherever moral panic, hasty judgment, fear, brutal partisan ignorance, and spin‑centric travesties of disinformation can flourish, Lysenko's spirit will never die.@

Who believes politicians paid by ExxonMobil instead of scientists, doctors, and conservationists? Gullible people who want to believe. That=s what makes hoaxes work.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 21, 2014

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Who Believes This Stuff?

Bigfoot is a giant hairy ape-like creature who walks on two legs and is hard to find. So hard to find that it probably doesn’t exist. But that’s just my opinion, not shared by the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, whose website collects scraps of possible evidence to show that Bigfoot lives! To see for yourself, you could go on one of the dozen 4-day expeditions that BFRO organizes yearly in wilderness areas across the US to find Bigfoot. If you can’t get away from work, just tune in Sunday evenings to “Finding Bigfoot”: the BFRO’s researchers have been broadcasting their search on one of Animal Planet’s top-rated programs for 5 years. Perhaps a more accurate title would be “Not Finding Bigfoot”.

My interest is more theoretical: who believes in Bigfoot and other unlikely ideas? Polling organizations produce different results about the belief in Bigfoot. Public Policy Polling in 2013 said that 14% believe, and the Baylor University Religion Survey in 2007 agreed, finding that 16% thought absolutely or probably that Bigfoot lives. But Angus Reid Public Opinion says that in 2012, 29% of Americans thought Bigfoot was definitely or probably real.

PPP and Baylor agree that belief in Bigfoot is spread across the American landscape: there is little difference by gender or political party or age. The only significant differences are in education: 27% of those who did not finish high school, 20% of high school graduates, but only 10% of college graduates.

Bigfoot is not a political animal. Neither is belief in aliens, but the number who believe is harder to pin down. PPP’s poll said 29% think that aliens exist; a 2013 poll by Survata, a consumer research firm, found that 37% “believe in the existence of extra-terrestrial life”, while National Geographic said 77% believe there are signs that aliens have visited earth.

Other wild ideas that are not shaped by politics are whether shape-shifting reptilian people control our world (believed by 4%); whether Paul McCartney died in a car crash in 1966 (5%); or whether television contains secret mind-controlling technology (15%). But how else to explain the popularity of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians”?

About one-fifth believe that vaccines cause autism, according to the 2013 PPP survey, replicated by the American Medical Association. That idea is pretty evenly spread across age, gender and ethnic groups and political positions. Like all of these beliefs, it seems immune to scientific evidence that shows it’s not true: the paper by the British scientist Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a connection was a fraud in service of his own financial gain.

Some strange beliefs are highly political. For example, PPP asked people, “Do you believe that a secretive power elite with a globalist agenda is conspiring to eventually rule the world through an authoritarian world government, or New World Order?” About one quarter of Americans said “yes”, a scary thing in itself for our political process. Who are they? The more conservative, the more likely is belief in the New World Order: 45% of those who identified themselves as “very conservative”, 33% of somewhat conservative, but only 12% of very liberal. Men are about twice as likely to women to believe this, and whites more likely than minorities.

The New World Order advocates may be the same people who make other outlandish political claims which all lead in the same direction: President Obama is evil. Among very conservative respondents, PPP found that 21% believe that Obama is the Anti-Christ. And there still are lots of “birthers”, people who believe that Obama was not born in the US and so should not be President: in a poll earlier this year, 38% said that. Who are they? They are overwhelmingly conservative Republicans, among whom about two-thirds believe this. They tend to be older whites who did not attend college. Very similar results were found by Rasmussen Reports.

The public production of Obama’s long-form birth certificate did nothing to stop the birther conspiracy claims, demonstrating a deeper truth about crazy ideas: they don’t go away. No amount of evidence has convinced those who claim the Holocaust never happened or that the moon landing was faked.

Scientific research, which is often rejected by most conspiracy theorists, can help us understand why such theories are believed. Belief in broad secret conspiracies is connected to feelings of powerlessness in the face of great forces and powerful institutions. Distrust of government, which has a solid rational basis, leads to distrust of scientists and media, especially when they say things that are disturbing or complicated. Cynicism about politics leads to conspiracy theories about political events. Then attempts to debunk inaccurate information can actually strengthen false beliefs, in the so-called “backfire effect”. The internet provides confirmation of every nutty idea, making debunking even harder.

There is nothing inherently dangerous in believing in Bigfoot. But holding similar nutty ideas can be dangerous: the false vaccine-autism link reduced parents’ interest in vaccines, allowing some formerly extinct diseases to come back, like measles and whooping cough. Distrusting scientists or “mainstream media” isolates people from reality. The only way to reduce the influence of crazy ideas is for people who know they are untrue to stop using them for their own selfish purposes.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 14, 2014