Just Above Sunset
October 3, 2004 - The Annuls of Cognitive Dissonance

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Last year in Just Above Sunset you would find the October 19, 2003 opinion column had a long subtitle -

Thoughts on nailing mashed potatoes to a wall.

Or - "We report, you decide."

"Disseminating Ignorance."

Basically, how watching the news can actually sometimes make you dumber, and have you believe things that just aren't so.

This was a discussion of a study done by researchers from the Program on International Policy Attitudes (a joint project of several academic centers, some of them based at the University of Maryland) and Knowledge Networks, a California-based polling firm.  These PIPA folks had spent almost a year tracking the public's misperceptions of major news events and polling people to find out just where they go to get things flat out wrong.  The study in question was published October 2nd and the full results are here under the heading - "Misperceptions, The Media and The Iraq War - A PIPA/Knowledge Networks Study."  TruthOut.com here has a useful table of the results. 
The conclusion?  Statistically, those who consistently get the actual facts wrong about what our country has done and is doing - and about much of what is happening in the world - use Fox News as their usual source of information.  Harold Meyerson has a good analysis of the study here in the Washington Post: Fact-Free News, Wednesday, October 15, 2003; page A23 – and Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, had a lot to say last October.

Fast forward. It seems these people at PIPA are at it again with this study, Bush Supporters Misread Many of His Foreign Policy Positions, dated Wednesday, September 29, 2004 with two subheadings – “Kerry Supporters Largely Accurate” and “Swing Voters Also Misread Bush, But Not Kerry.”

It opens with this: (my emphases)


As the nation prepares to watch the presidential candidates debate foreign policy issues, a new PIPA-Knowledge Networks poll finds that Americans who plan to vote for President Bush have many incorrect assumptions about his foreign policy positions. Kerry supporters, on the other hand, are largely accurate in their assessments. The uncommitted also tend to misperceive Bush's positions, though to a smaller extent than Bush supporters, and to perceive Kerry's positions correctly. Steven Kull, director of PIPA, comments: "What is striking is that even after nearly four years President Bush's foreign policy positions are so widely misread, while Senator Kerry, who is relatively new to the public and reputed to be unclear about his positions, is read correctly."

Majorities of Bush supporters incorrectly assumed that Bush favors including labor and environmental standards in trade agreements (84%), and the US being part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (69%), the International Criminal Court (66%), the treaty banning land mines (72%), and the Kyoto Treaty on global warming (51%). They were divided between those who knew that Bush favors building a new missile defense system now (44%) and those who incorrectly believe he wishes to do more research until its capabilities are proven (41%). However, majorities were correct that Bush favors increased defense spending (57%) and wants the US, not the UN, to take the stronger role in developing Iraq's new government (70%).

… PIPA selected these questions from those asked in polls by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations which dealt with issues on which the presidential candidates have taken clear and documented positions.


If you’re interested, the full report is available here (in PDF format, so you’ll need Acrobat Reader), the questionnaire here (also PDF format) and the press release here.

So what to make of this?

You hear, and read, that Bush does NOT want labor and environmental standards included in any trade agreements we make. The man flat-out says so, repeatedly – he says such concerns hobble businesses trying to thrive and grow and create more jobs. But you don’t believe that - because you don’t want to?

The other stuff?

We rather publicly, and unilaterally, pulled out of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the International Criminal Court, that pesky treaty banning land mines (ours at the Korean DMZ were too important to our security), and that tree-huggers Kyoto Treaty on global warming (which has still not been proven to be really happening, according to this administration).  We angered most of the world with all these moves.  Our allies, or those folks that used to be our allies, were aghast at all this.  And Russia may ratify the Kyoto Treaty accords this week, just to tweak us.  But you don’t believe all this - because you don’t want to?

That new missile defense system will be deployed in Alaska just before our election – and it doesn’t work (see this and some discussion here) – and it won’t work, and the testing and research that proved it just will not work has ended.  But you don’t believe that - because you don’t want to?

This is not a problem with watching Fox News.  They reported on all this – and whole-heartedly approved of all these administration positions.

The problem is deeper.  At some visceral level more than half of the country wants Bush to win in November, if you follow the polls.  And wanting that, they make up stuff about what he does – to assure themselves he’s a reasonable, thoughtful guy who is simply misunderstood.  These are decent people and want to believe Bush is being a decent and fair guy.  These are your friends and neighbors – and people who want us, as a country, to do the right thing.

I suppose here you could say something about the willing suspension of disbelief, but that seems a bit lame, as this isn’t a Broadway musical where Puerto Rican gangs suddenly break into Jerome Robbins dances and sing Bernstein, or where Peter Pan flies off with Tinkerbell, and no one minds the shift from realism to pleasant artifice.  This is where my nephew in the Army puts his life on the line in Iraq, and where the majority of people around the world see us as dangerous, arrogant bullies who are now the problem, and not, as we have been seen since the late forties until these last three years, the solution.

One can forgive these people supporting Bush for assuming the best about him in spite of the facts.  That is natural, and understandable.  Look up the term cognitive dissonance.

But facts are facts.  And some things – what has been done in our name – just cannot be forgiven.

So is it a new rule - as Bill Maher likes to say – that when in power you can do any amount of damage you want and people, being decent and generous, will tell themselves you didn’t do anything at all like that?  That seems to be the case.

If it is the case, and you rely on the innate decency and generosity of most Americans, you remain in power.


An old college friend who read this item above asked me what was my take on “the public's death grip on the cognitive dissonance of what he says and what seems to be true?”

My response?

It’s fatal to generalize about “the public” – as some are, as we see here, finding self-delusional ways to believe the man is just not that dumb, or that dangerous, and thus find ways to justify having supported him for these four years (that cognitive dissonance rationalizing crowd who doesn’t want to believe each and every one of them could have been so wrong about the guy), some are just gleeful that this frat boy who sneers and proudly he doesn’t read is now lording over all the so-called intellectuals who think they’re too good for NASCAR and Toby Keith (his lying to the elite is an ongoing in-your-face thing they just love), and some are just making up what they want to believe because that is how one gets through life without being upset all the time – you make up the world you live in, as the real world isn’t that nice – and some are just not particularly interested in what’s happening in the world and assume what they think ought to be so must be so - in a sensible world, and some are just dumb.

Rather than a uniform “death grip on cognitive dissonance,” this is a mixed array of folks who hear one thing and see another, and, for many reasons, deal with it as if there is no problem at all.  Let’s call them the optimists, the folks with a good attitude.

But as for the first group above, that cognitive dissonance rationalizing crowd?  Say you are the parent of a child you love dearly over the years, and you come to find out he is a sadistic bully who may now have committed some awful crime, and the facts are clear.  You’ll do almost anything not to believe it, because, well, what does that say about you, the one who showered the child with approval and stood behind him all those years?  It’s like that.  We really wanted to believe the best about this kid, and we’re still trying hard to believe the best, but the cops are at the door with the arrest warrant.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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