Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics About Lies

May 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We all know that Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya and that his campaign was funded by Hugo Chavez.

Yes, I know, presidents going back to Washington have been the subject of rumors. But it seems that with the arrival of Obama, presidential rumors have become something of a growth industry (maybe our only growth industry these days.)

J.L. Bell blogs mostly about comic books and fantasy literature at his Oz and Ends. But two weeks ago he posted some numbers about presidential rumors on the Internet.* For his data, he went where most of us would go – Here’s what he found.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

In less than two years, Obama rumor-mongers have had nearly twice the output that their Bush counterparts managed in eight years – 87 to 47. And while the Bush rumors split almost evenly true-false, false Obama rumors dwarfed the true ones.** The false rumors about Obama outnumbered the total number of rumors about Bush. And while the lies about Obama are almost all negative, some of the false rumors about Bush are quite flattering, along the lines of the George Washington cheery tree rumor – like the rumor that had Bush paying for the funeral of a boy who had drowned near the Crawford ranch.

Is there really a right-left difference? If the “epistemic closure” hypothesis is accurate – if conservatives, even the chattering intellectuals, live and write in a bubble that keeps out any realities that might conflict with their ideology – then conservatives of all sorts might also welcome into the bubble even the most preposterous and unfounded rumors.

Surely, there must be a sociology of rumor. What are the demographic correlates, if any? What are the conditions under which rumors are more likely to arise and spread? I would imagine that lack of trust is important. The less we trust others who are outside our relatively small circle, and the less we interact with them, the more likely we will be to rely on rumor.

Trust, at least trust in government, has been decreasing generally, but conservatives, when they are not in control of the government, are especially mistrusting. Under any circumstances, false beliefs are frustratingly resistant to facts. It probably doesn’t improve conservative’s grasp of reality when they have a major TV network giving airtime to these rumors and when their leaders tell them about death panels.

* His post was picked up by and then by Brendan Nyhan, who has had some interesting posts on the epistemic closure discussion.

** The other categories were “mixed,” “undetermined,” and “unclassifiable.” In the graph, I collapsed the latter two categories into “other.”


PCM said...

I don't know if I buy "epistemic closure" as much a more simple left/right divide.

The Left values truth more than conviction. The Right values strong conviction (belief, faith, or dogma) as an ideal. And often conflates these ideas with truth. (So did fascism.)

And that's regardless of whether or not that conviction is based on lies, nonsense, or hate. If rumor fits your world-view, it's good. Who cares if it's true?

I'm not saying the Left is immune to such nonsense. But I do think the left is more open to the facts and being able to say, "Oh, I guess I was wrong about that."

Anonymous said...

I don't know PCM, you might be wrong about that. :-)

Anonymous said...

But I should say I do agree with you because it fits my world-view nicely.