Posted by: theoptimisticconservative | July 14, 2010

Logic, Chopped

There are times when errors in logic seem minor and picayune – and there are times when they undermine the whole point being made.  In this piece by Joe Keohane at the Boston Globe’s website, we find a case of the latter.

Keohane’s thesis is that people’s beliefs about public issues are impervious to facts, and that this is partly because people hate to admit being wrong.  That’s not actually news, of course; people on both the left and the right would say that about each other within the first 45 seconds after being awakened out of a dead sleep.   Keohane backs it up with information from a study, however, and that’s where the poleax is applied to the logic.

Here’s the relevant paragraph:

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

What’s the logic problem here?  It’s the implication that the pieces of information respondents were quizzed on are of primary relevance to forming a valid political opinion about welfare.

To make a case about people’s use and misuse of facts, an academic study should focus on facts that matter to the opinions in question.  If a survey asked people what percentage of the federal budget is taken up by the Defense Department, respondents might know or not know, but that has very little meaning for the quality of their opinions about the topic of “national defense.” The case is similar with federal welfare.  The facts relevant to people’s opinions would include such quantities as the percentage of welfare recipients who remain on welfare longer than, say, 2 years, the percentage who go on welfare and then have additional children while on welfare, and the percentage of the black population living on welfare.

My guess is that those with a “strong antiwelfare bias” would overestimate these percentages, while those with a strong pro-welfare bias would underestimate them.  Readers can decide for themselves who would probably err by the greatest margin.

I wouldn’t claim that people on either side of the issue would get the answers to relevant questions “correct” with pinpoint accuracy.  What I do assert is that you don’t know anything about how informed people’s opinions are, if you ask them questions that are unrelated to the criteria they use to form their opinions.

The criteria people use are, on the whole, very reasonable.  Antiwelfare voters dislike welfare because they believe it creates a subculture of irresponsible dependency.  They don’t measure this effect by the percentage of the federal budget that goes to welfare programs.  They measure it by what they see and read and hear reported, about the lives of welfare recipients and the fates of their communities.  They look at statistics on welfare recidivism, single motherhood, crime, gangs, low educational achievement, and male mortality among the urban poor.  They probably couldn’t repeat precise numbers even one day after reading them in a newspaper or hearing them on the TV news – but their recollection that the statistics indicate a problem will be a well-founded part of a logical thought process.  This thought process, in all its humble simplicity, has a rational integrity that contrasts starkly with the illogic of assuming that people’s opinions are “wrong” because they don’t know pieces of information irrelevant to those opinions.

It’s worth pointing out that pro-welfare voters also decide their opinions based on criteria far other than the percentage of the federal budget represented by welfare expenditures, or the percentage of recipients who are black, or the average subsidy amount.  And it’s worth making the further point, obvious though it should be, that in considering these voters – both pro-welfare and antiwelfare – the rest of us would not judge the “rightness” of their opinions about welfare by how many of the irrelevant questions they got right.

Keohane’s argument highlights a deeper truth, however, if perhaps inadvertently.  That truth is that what he calls “facts” would be more accurately called “elements of a narrative” – and the narrative is what it’s all about.  His piece has the potential to generate a narrative that “antiwelfare voters don’t know the facts about welfare.”  That theme isn’t untrue, in the strictest sense, but it also isn’t comprehensive enough to be an accurate assertion; and it is, in the context of the example he cites, decidedly irrelevant.  Antiwelfare voters know enough to form their opinion based on observations – about social patterns and lifestyle – that hold up quite well in empirical study.  But the Illinois Urbana-Champagne survey didn’t ask them about the criteria they actually use to make their judgments.

Unpacking narratives like this is keeping a lot of people employed these days, so we probably ought to thank the MSM for its incorrigible tendencies in this regard.  I agree with Joe Keohane on what he says toward the end of his piece:  that those with a media voice need to ensure a price is paid for the retailing of bad information.  But a person who knows that welfare correlates strongly with out-of-wedlock birth, multigenerational dependency, low educational achievement, and crime isn’t retailing bad information – or forming his opinions without good information – if he isn’t able to recite the percentage of the federal budget that goes to welfare programs.  Let’s keep these things straight.

Cross-posted at Hot Air.



  1. That’s a gotcha rationale there. Reminds me of Klein.

    And I agree, it has very little to do with the formation of the attitudes on the subject. I would suggest that welfare isn’t even much on the lips of limited govt types at the moment, with the exception of the discussion of how much additional unemployment will we have if unemployment compensation is extended again.

    In absolute terms the numbers people should really be worried about is social security and govt health plans, which are going bankrupt, but which no one seems to want to really come to grips with.

    All the other things govt does outside of defense/intelligence just have people angry about them being done at all. Obviously, that list is a little too streamlined to be taken too literally, but people have an intuitive sense that govt has taken on too much and they see the overall budget numbers and realize we are spending too much.

    Mr. Keohane just doesn’t get it.

  2. Glad to see you back!

  3. Good to see you back Opticon. Very good points.

    Perhaps you didn’t hit this fellow hard enough though. How much of a percentage of the
    federal budget and how many people are on a program are both irrelevent to the question of whether a program is worthwhile or not. And the fact that Keohane names as among the four most important a question focused on percentage of recipients who are of a particular race reveals his bias that the motivation of the respondents is racist. Even the last of his named questions in that paragraph (the average payout) is of only marginal relevance to whether the program is worthwhile.

  4. Prof. Nyhan isn’t much of a fact checker himself. He claims that revenues actually fell as a result of the Bush tax cuts. Here’s a link which reports that 2006 federal personal income tax receipts were $1044B compared to $794B in 2003.

  5. I too, “agree with Joe Keohane on what he says toward the end of his piece: that those with a media voice need to ensure a price is paid for the retailing of bad information.” and the MSM, propaganda organ for the liberal left long ago betrayed its raison de etre.

    It’s long obsolete and needs to go the way of all institutions that outlast their relevance; extinction.

    As for agenda journalists like Keohane, their criminality lies outside the law but is no less morally reprehensible, opprobrium and being ostracized are their just due.

  6. Excellent deconstruction J.E.

    I personally glaze over when I see statistics. I’ve all but forgotten them before I even finish reading the article that contains them. However, I do indeed remember the the message they’re supposed to convey. I’ve read 100 articles on how Obama’s popularity figures and how they’re plummeting. I couldn’t tell you what the numbers are, but I know he’s becoming less popular.

    On a side note, anyone else as disappointed as I am that the Senate just voted to heap another round of oppressive regulations on the private sector (that favors the big banks over the small ones)? I was so thrilled when Scott Brown won that MA election in January. I sent him an email today saying that he would no longer get any money from me, nor my support. I almost wonder why I voted for the guy. I thought it was so he would vote AGAINST such bills.

  7. RE — yes, I’m disappointed in the finance “reform” vote. Although not surprised — not even about Scott Brown. He’s a “prophylactic government” Republican, much like the Maine Sisters. Basically, the “reform” package doesn’t have any useful elements in to address the actual problems in the financial meltdown of 2008. It futzes around on the edges with new constraints that will end up costing consumers more, and will make banks less willing than they are already to float small business loans. A recipe for deepening the depression.

    Agree with the other good comments here, including JBass’ point (welcome! BTW) that the BUsh tax cuts, like the Reagan tax cuts, produced an increase in actual revenues. It continues to amaze me that Democrats require deficit spending as the price of agreeing to tax cuts. Tax rate cuts ALWAYS make revenues go up; the obvious course would be to cut tax rates AND cut spending.

  8. Aren Polls part of the “narrative” ? Should they be believed ? or do we just accept the “narrative” when it suits us, or do we find holes in all “narratives”

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