Squaring the Culture

"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

12/29/2010 (12:04 pm)

PIPA is At It Again

For the past 7 years or so, conservatives have had to tolerate liberals, Progressives, and assorted pseudo-intellectuals informing them superciliously that it had been “proved” by “research” that Fox News viewers were badly misinformed about current issues. They were usually referring to a horribly-constructed bit of research produced by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland that examined responses to three questions about the run-up to the Iraq war. Somehow, to the left, this proved that Fox was misinforming its viewers about all subjects — and that’s leaving aside glaring concerns about the construction of the questions, and about the utter absence of any attempt to correlate private, personal opinions to particular news reports (I mentioned the report and its flaws briefly here.)

Well, they’re at it again. PIPA, which in the interim has recast itself as World Public Opinion.org, recently produced another amusing bit of research purporting to prove, using more current policy questions, that Fox News viewers are the most misinformed of all news viewers. The actual study can be read here, if you want a lesson in how not to perform genuine research.

The title is a masterpiece of studied neutrality: Misinformation and the 2010 Election. So far, so good. A lot of us have noted the role played by the press in keeping voters ill-informed. It’s a worthwhile topic for research. Funny, though, that they didn’t run this after the 2008 election; I guess these Objective Scholars® considered voting for Obama a well-informed choice, and considered that misinformation is only evident when voters elect Republicans. Examining the minds of Obama voters was left to conservative partisans like John Ziegler, who, in fact, did a much better job of demonstrating that the voters were misinformed than PIPA does here (and Obama voters were the most misinformed of all — but nobody was particularly well-informed). Of course, Ziegler used genuine polling organizations like Zogby and Wilson Research, and there was no disputing the factual nature of his questions. He also did not attempt to blame any particular network, which is a fool’s errand. PIPA, take note.

Why the focus on Fox News? The study introduces itself with a concern about the impact of “corporate funding” on elections in the wake of the Citizens United case, which I wrote about last February. This is a particular concern of Progressives, who went insane predicting a flood of corporate money devastating politics in America (which in fact never materialized,) but not a concern of anybody else. So we know from the start that the researchers are Progressives, and we all know how Progressives feel about Fox. This explains why PIPA is interested in a question like “Are Fox News viewers misinformed” rather than a more neutral question like, say, “Which news reports are more accurate?” Of course, they shrouded their focus on Fox in objective-sounding phrases, but the focus was plainly on Fox.

Be that as it may, the study is a laugh riot of methodological blunders.

In the first place, the study defines “truth” as “agreement with the public statements of a particular government agency.” For example, if you disagree with the Congressional Budget Office in their assessment of the effect of the stimulus, then you are, by this definition, misinformed. That example is particularly egregious: the CBO assessed the effect of the stimulus, not by examining actual results, but by running an economic model using the number of stimulus dollars as input, and applying Keynesian multipliers. In short, if you think the CBO’s model is not a good model, you are misinformed — by definition.

This is genuinely funny. Liberals fancy themselves to be the reservoir of intellectual resistance to the government in America. But as of today, liberals claim that if you disagree with the government, you are wrong, by simple definition. Big Brother knows best. Who knew they’d changed sides?

Next, several questions asked people to opine about what “most economists” think. The study defines “most economists” as “the economists who happen to work for the government agency we chose as our source.” No polling of economists was performed, nor were any such polls consulted. So we know before we start that the study’s “correct” answers to questions involving opinions about what “most economists” think are completely unreliable. They really have not the slightest idea what “most economists” think.

And what is it that people are asked about what these gods of economics think? That’s pretty interesting, too: they’re asked, among other things, whether more economists think the health care reform law will increase the deficit, more think it will reduce the deficit, or whether their views are evenly divided. Or, whether more economists think the economy is getting better or getting worse.

My reaction to that is “What kind of idiot decides where they stand by polling economists to find out which view has 60% support? Who the &@#! cares what ‘most economists’ think?” Why aren’t we examining the actual effects of such laws in other countries, or in various states where they’ve been attempted? Why not examine the history of predictions made by politicians advocating various spending programs (which almost invariably understate costs and overstate revenues?)

But no, to PIPA what matters is whether people know which way the wind was blowing among economists — meaning, of course, which way the particular economists were leaning who were working for the particular branch of the Obama administration they chose by whatever means. And they chose objectively, of course.

How very revealing that these Progressives think truth is determined by agreeing with people they consider important! One scales the heights of intellectual mountains by following the academic herd? Really?

I’m reminded of a wry comment about experts made by John Meier in his analysis of the life of Jesus, A Marginal Jew:

Nothing ages faster than relevance. The “cutting edge” of scholarship at any given moment often turns out to be the sharp cliff of Gerasa, off of which academic lemmings keep hurling themselves.

Choosing sides by polling experts is not always such a good idea.

But here is what I consider the crowning deficiency: the study purports to examine whether a news agency misinforms its viewers — without examining a single news report.

How does that work? The questions about what news source respondents viewed don’t sum to 100%, because most people view multiple sources of news — Fox, CBS, newspapers, various Internet sites, etc. The study does not even include most news purveyors, and makes no attempt to identify which of the various sources it does include was the source of the “misinformation.” Using this method it’s not possible to determine which, or whether any, news organization misinformed anybody.

Ultimately, all the study demonstrates is which set of voters was more likely to agree with the current administration’s talking points. For some reason, I don’t consider that a useful test of accuracy, nor does the failure to swallow ObamaCrap® fill me with foreboding about the future of the republic. Call me picky.

Nobody who knows the first thing about social science research can take this “study” seriously. It’s not a study, it’s a paid, partisan hit piece. The fact that so many liberals accept it uncritically and repeat it as fact, constitutes proof that they’re either not capable of critical thinking, or not willing to engage in it when the target is conservative. The fact that PIPA and other progressive-leaning think tanks continue to produce such transparently nonsensical “research”, constitutes proof that the manipulators of the liberal herd know how to move the cows.

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