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The Backfire Effect

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 3:22 PM EDT

THE BACKFIRE EFFECT....What happens when you tell people that someone has made a false claim? Shankar Vedantam reports:

Political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler provided two groups of volunteers with the Bush administration's prewar claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. One group was given a refutation -- the comprehensive 2004 Duelfer report that concluded that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before the United States invaded in 2003. Thirty-four percent of conservatives told only about the Bush administration's claims thought Iraq had hidden or destroyed its weapons before the U.S. invasion, but 64 percent of conservatives who heard both claim and refutation thought that Iraq really did have the weapons. The refutation, in other words, made the misinformation worse.

A similar "backfire effect" also influenced conservatives told about Bush administration assertions that tax cuts increase federal revenue. One group was offered a refutation by prominent economists that included current and former Bush administration officials. About 35 percent of conservatives told about the Bush claim believed it; 67 percent of those provided with both assertion and refutation believed that tax cuts increase revenue.

Italics mine. Nyhan and Reifler found this "backfire" effect only among conservatives. Refutations had little effect on liberals, but it didn't cause them to actively believe the misleading information even more strongly.

Why? Reifler suggests it's because conservatives are more rigid than liberals. Maybe so. If I had to guess, though, I'd say it's because right-wing talkers have spent so many years deriding "so-called experts" that they now have negative credibility with many conservatives. The very fact that an expert says a conservative claim is wrong is taken as a good reason to believe the claim. This could probably be tested by doing a study of factual information outside the realm of politics and seeing if conservatives react the same way. If they do, maybe that's support for the generic rigidity theory. If not, it's support for the theory that conservatives simply distrust political elites.

For more, here is Reifler's online Q&A at the Washington Post this morning.

UPDATE: I should add that these weren't the only two questions Nyhan and Reifler asked. They also asked a question about stem cell research in which it was liberals who might be expected to resist the truth. They didn't find any backfire effect there either, though.

UPDATE: The full paper is here. Via email, Nyhan tells me that they tried to test my proposition that conservatives don't trust elite experts by varying the source of the refutations. Sometimes it was the New York Times, other times it was Fox News. "Surprisingly," he says, "it had little effect."

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McCain Campaign: SNL Portrayal of Palin Was Sexist

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 3:21 PM EDT

Most people have seen the opening sketch of the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live — the one featuring Tina Fey's dead-on impersonation of Sarah Palin. (Video here.)

Now, Fey's Palin is a bit empty-headed. She's portrayed as a superficial and illegitimate usurper of the role Hillary Clinton (played by Amy Poehler in the sketch) ought to rightfully play.

It would be pretty hard to label a sketch as sexist if it portrays one woman as intelligent and capable and another as shallow and untested. In fact, comparing two people on their merits, with no regard to their sex, would appear to be the opposite of sexism. Right?

Not during an election year. Everything is a potential talking point. Here is John McCain's favorite CEO and sexism-crier-in-chief, Carly Fiorina, trying her best to attack the sketch on MSNBC:

"I think that [the sketch] continues the line of argument [against Palin] that is disrespectful in the extreme and, yes, I would say, sexist. In the sense that just because Sarah Palin has different views than Hillary Clinton does not mean that she lacks substance. She has a lot of substance."

WTF does that even mean? Criticizing a woman for having less substance than another woman is sexist? Criticizing a woman for having different views than another woman is sexist? Disagreeing with a woman's views and thus portraying her as having less substance as another woman is sexist?

Or is the correct answer that anything that attacks Sarah Palin effectively is sexist?

David Foster Wallace's Death Will Probably Make Wallace-Style Dystopia A Lot More Likely

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 3:20 PM EDT

mojo-photo-dfw.jpgThe apparent suicide this weekend of David Foster Wallace has me pretty depressed, for a couple reasons. One, why do minds that brilliant always seem to self-destruct? And two, Wallace's work often functioned not only as a postmodern high-wire act, but also as a cautionary tale, warnings to us frogs in the pot about what it would look like if the water really started to boil. While George Saunders has, to a certain extent, taken up the mantle of jaw-dropping tales of tomorrow, his approach is unquestionably lighter. Of course, Wallace definitely had a sense of humor as well, but his work always carried an undercurrent of urgency, an almost desperate need to defuse as many terrible possible futures as he could. If it hadn't been for Infinite Jest's "Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment," you just know that somebody would have already tried to sell the naming rights for 2008. Without his hilarious, terrifying, engrossing warnings, what horrors will we blindly stumble into?

Mission Creep Dispatch: Robert Kaplan

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 3:03 PM EDT

kaplan.jpgAs part of our special investigation "Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide," we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)

The following dispatch comes from Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His latest book is Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts.

In Defense of the Pentagon's Small, Small World

It is important to realize that dozens of deployments simultaneously around the globe need not overstretch a military if those deployments are by and large small. But one big sustained deployment like Iraq can wreck the whole manpower system. It is also important to realize that all of these deployments are closely monitored by Congress. I was in Nepal in the middle of 2005, covering our military mission there, when its activities were halted for the time being by Washington because the king had suspended the political party process, in addition to other anti-democratic infractions. I was in Algeria the same year to witness the first US military mission there after that country had held free elections. Unlike during the Cold War, these missions for the most part are restricted to fledgling democratic countries.

Lovely Sarah

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 2:57 PM EDT

LOVELY SARAH....Tyler Cowen says lots of peculiar but interesting things. That's why I like reading him. Today he suggests that, Cleopatra-like, Sarah Palin has a lot of conservative men thinking with their gonads instead of their brains:

Andrew Sullivan is calling Sarah Palin "Rovian." Maybe, but her first order of business has been to fool the Republican establishment, not the American people....Which narrative do you find more plausible?:

"Lovely Sarah, she's saying and doing everything we want her to. What a quick learner. How pliable she is. Remember Descartes on tabula rasa?"

"Once John and I are elected, they'll need me more than I need them."

The people who are right now the happiest may end up the most concerned. For better or worse, they're about to lose control of their movement.

This is both peculiar and interesting. But is it right? My own guess is that McCain doesn't need her at all once the election is over. If he wins in November, Palin will be sent overseas to funerals and into the heartland for occasional speeches to the moral values crowd, and that's about it. She'll beaver away on a "special needs portfolio" or some such, while the big boys worry about which country to yell at next.

On the other hand, if John McCain loses, Palin might well be in line to be the GOP's next star. (Assuming she avoids some kind of career ending catastrophe on the trail, of course.) In other words, if she were really smart and devious, maybe she'd be slyly working to ensure McCain's defeat, not his victory. So maybe Tyler is right, but just has the wrong timeframe.

Judis on the Money

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 2:11 PM EDT

John Judis over at TNR puts himself in Obama's shoes and describes how he would respond to the financial situation. I think he's spot on.

I would call a press conference tomorrow to discuss the financial crisis. Do it in New York City. Even better, on Wall Street. Begin with a fifteen minute statement outlining why the crisis has occurred and what, generally, the government should do about it. Contrast your approach sharply with that of McCain and the Republicans. Take questions for an hour from reporters. Finally, issue a challenge to McCain to debate the issue by week's end. And offer to allow McCain to bring Sarah Palin and Phil Gramm at his side if he needs them to advise him on the issues.

I particularly like the "take questions for an hour" part. Contrasts nicely. The only potential pitfall? If McCain heads to the Senate the same day and introduces serious legislation to address the failing financial industry. Then Obama looks like a showboat and McCain looks like a serious, pro-active leader.

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Kazakhstan-onomics

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 2:08 PM EDT

KAZAKHSTAN-ONOMICS....Felix Salmon on our brave new world:

The "shadow banking system" is now so big and so global that for all we know a series of bad decisions by a mid-level technocrat in Kazakhstan could precipitate cataclysm across America and the world.

That's true, but only if the financial system is fundamentally unbalanced to begin with — and it's the job of governments and central banks to regulate the financial system to keep that from happening. They don't regulate in order to produce the results they want, or to prevent people from making money, but to keep the financial system within at least the very broad boundaries of basic stability.

Alternatively, you can let the unfettered market have its way and then clean up the messes afterward. This is pretty orthodox Republican thinking, shared by Hoover in 1930, Reagan and Bush during the S&L crisis, and now Alan Greenspan and George Bush during the housing bubble. This ends up hurting lots of little guys, of course, but the irony is that it ends up hurting lots of big guys too. Frankly, they'd do better — in fact, they do do better — with Democrats running the show. They never really seem to figure that out, though.

McCain Blasts Wall Street Failure, Neglects To Mention His Adviser Helped Cause It

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 1:44 PM EDT

As the news broke of the Lehman Brothers meltdown and the rest of the latest financial crisis, John McCain, speaking at a campaign rally in Florida on Monday, angrily declared,

We will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street. This is a failure.

And in a statement released by his campaign, McCain called for greater "transparency and accountability" on Wall Street.

If McCain wants to hold someone accountable for the failure in transparency and accountability that led to the current calamity, he should turn to his good friend and adviser, Phil Gramm.

As Mother Jones reported in June, eight years ago, Gramm, then a Republican senator chairing the Senate banking committee, slipped a 262-page bill into a gargantuan, must-pass spending measure. Gramm's legislation, written with the help of financial industry lobbyists, essentially removed newfangled financial products called swaps from any regulation. Credit default swaps are basically insurance policies that cover the losses on investments, and they have been at the heart of the subprime meltdown because they have enabled large financial institutions to turn risky loans into risky securities that could be packaged and sold to other institutions.

Lehman's collapse threatens the financial markets because of swaps. From Bloomberg:

Rove Attacks the Fact-Checkers

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 1:34 PM EDT

An integral part of the conservative noise machine is discrediting national newspapers and networks — if you can't trust the New York Times and NBC, you're increasingly reliant on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh for all of your news and analysis. But what to do when nonpartisan outlets devoted exclusively to refereeing the campaign in a fair and unbiased way start to call you on distortions and deceptions? Discredit them too, of course.

Despite Palin's Rhetoric, Alaska Still Pursuing "Bridge to Nowhere"

| Mon Sep. 15, 2008 1:26 PM EDT

Sarah Palin has repeatedly made the (false) claim that she "told Congress 'Thanks, but no thanks' on the bridge to nowhere." Actually, when Palin campaigned for governor in 2006, part of her platform included supporting the bridge, even though by then it had already become a controversial symbol of federal pork. She didn't change course on the bridge until September 2007, almost a year after she was elected, when it became clear that Congress would not allow the earmarked money to be spent on the original bridge project. But on Monday, ProPublica's Paul Kiel reported that the Palin administration is still pushing for a bridge between the city of Ketchikan, Alaska and its international airport on nearby Gravina island:

Gov. Palin's administration acknowledges that it is still pursuing a project that would link Ketchikan to its airport -- with the help of as much as $73 million in federal funds earmarked by Congress for the original project.
"What the media isn't reporting is that the project isn't dead," Roger Wetherell, spokesman for Alaska's Department of Transportation, said. In a process begun this past winter, the state's DOT is currently considering (PDF) a number of alternative solutions (five other possible bridges or three different ferry routes) to link Ketchikan and Gravina Island.

ProPublica has more, including an Alaska Department of Transportation map of all the "different" bridges the Palin administration is considering building.