Social Science is Depressing

No one has ever been poisoned by Halloween candy from a stranger.

I first learned this from an NPR story about the research of Joel Best ten years ago, and I think about it all the time. Since publishing his original research in 1985, he has been “unable to find a substantiated report of a child being killed or seriously injured by a contaminated treat picked up in the course of trick or treating.” Of the five cases that seemed to point to poisoning, three were health related, one turned out to be a child who ingested drugs stashed in his home and another boy was poisoned by his own father. So unless you’re a junkie or a murderer, the kids will be fine. If you are a junkie or murderer, maybe you should rethink having kids and just concentrate on your NFL career.

This research gets a decent amount of press coverage every October. Still, I bet that most people think they know of or heard of this one kid somewhere – probably Wisconsin – who was poisoned once. It’s probably in the same part of our brain that stores fake Gandhi quotes. It’s staggering to think about how much parents and children all over the country have altered their behavior based on a myth. On the other hand, no one seems all that alarmed that American boys are growing boobs from eating breakfast cereal that is basically candy and thus facing serious bodily harm from purple nurples in the locker room after gym class. But I digress.

When I was a kid, the local hospital used to offer to x-ray your candy. As far as I know, people took the hospitals up on this ridiculous offer, even though x-rays can’t detect drugs or poison. We might as well have brought their candy to a psychic or Jenny McCarthy. My local police station still hosts a trick or treating thing that takes place entirely in the station parking lot. No one makes homemade treats anymore. Poisoning by candy has become part of the story of Halloween. Every parent tells their kids not to take candy from a stranger, even though I’m certain that we’d be doing a lot more for their health and wellbeing if we told them never to eat Fruity Pebbles, GoGurt, or Lunchables.

I had Professor Best’s work on my mind when I learned of a study examining the way people respond to survey questions.  It turns out that party affiliation has a measurable impact on your understanding of facts. Yes, people were paid fat academic salaries to verify this. The authors mention surveys that showed Republicans were much more likely to believe that Obama was born abroad or that WMDs had been found in Iraq. The cool part of this new research (which again, four professors and a bunch grad students got paid good money to do) is that it turns out people might not actually believe these things, but they tell survey-takers they do because they believe it portrays their party in a favorable light.

In other words, rather than making their Republican “team mates” look stupid for making stupid assertions, people tell pollsters they believe the crap their leaders are peddling to show unity, support, maintain the status quo, etc. The researchers call this behavior “cheerleading” (curse this academic jargon!) and seem to show that people do this because there’s no incentive NOT to support your favorite team when someone from a polling organization interrupts dinner and asks if you believe whatever whack-a-do thing Marco Rubio just said. If you like Marco Rubio, you say yes.

Here’s the best part – the research found that if you offer respondents an incentive for giving a factual answer OR admitting they don’t know the answer, it reduces the partisan bias in response by EIGHTY PERCENT. In other words, people may not actually believe the stupid things they hear, and they may not even know what the truth is, but they’ll still give a partisan answer when asked to show what good Republicans they are.

Implicit in all this is a recognition that polls matter — politicians twist and turn them for their nefarious purposes, and news organizations cite them as an ostensibly truthful index of public opinion. This got me thinking about a 2006 study on Fox News. As a new cable channel, Fox was introduced in twenty percent of US towns between 1996 and 2000. Using voting data from almost 10,000 towns, the researchers wanted to see if there was an increase in voting for Republicans once Fox was available. Ok, ok, you don’t have to read the paper. Not only did they see an increase between 1996 and 2000, they also conclude that Fox News convinced 3 to 28 of its viewers to vote Republican, though this is likely due to increasing turnout, not actually convincing any more people.

So we have three studies that paint a pretty picture for us. If these studies are true, it means that you could put a bunch of jackasses in front of microphones and have them bray the same bullshit over and over again. Some folks would believe it. Some folks would say they believe it, even if they knew better or had no idea at all. You could then have a media outlet with fancy graphics and eye candy “anchors” repeat the original garbage and cite surveys that apparently show that the American people strongly support said bullshit. Some significant percentage of people would ingest this information and go out and vote because of it.

Gosh. According to this research, it would only take a  a small group of bullshit slingers and bullshit believers could shut down the whole government. If only we could test that theory.


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2 thoughts on “Social Science is Depressing

  1. Elliott Echt says:

    Hi Irving – Xraying the candy was meant to detect razor blades and nails and such (seriously!). The razor blade in the candy bar story was popular when I was in grade school.
    The thoughts about Fox news are even more scary when you realize their two largest shareholder are an Australian and a Saudi.

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