The Playing the Race Card… Card

September 19, 2008

We all know that the hyper-media age is a brave and bizarre new place, where “meta-” counts for far more than meat. Marc Armbinder has the latest dispatch from the front lines: Playing The “Playing The Race Card” Card.

Once upon a time, the rules were simple. Republicans, who usually have to scramble to find one or two African American faces to highlight in their conventions (including having to resort to using stock photography of them), have the temerity to actually include African American politicians like, say, Barack Obama (coincidence? I think not!), in their political attack ads. Someone, somewhere (and just about anyone anywhere will do) complains that the usage was racist: meant to subtly play on racial discord and feelings of otherness. The Republicans would then lean back, hands in the air, eyes rolling, and accuse all Democrats and Presidential candidates everywhere, whether they had actually complained or not, of “playing the race card.” This response is devastatingly effective, primarily because it allows the very same people who definitely aren’t moved by subtle racist appeals to have the same response to the ad/controversy as if they were moved by them. You see, they don’t hate African Americans, they just hate how those African Americans are always whinily pointing out that they are African Americans, and having the temerity to exist in a universe in which some people find some things potentially racist.

Wait, did I say that the rules were simple? What I meant was that they were totally insane.

But anyhow, now we have another meta-layer to add to the whole thing: as Armbinder points out, there’s a possibility that Republicans could now be deliberately using African Americans in their ads so that they can start off the “race card” chain.

Case in point: a newly minted (and laughably implausible) attempt to link Obama for the current financial crisis by pointing out that he knows former and talks to Fannie Mae employees. Specifically, the ad uses a supposedly sinister African American as its example, despite the fact that a former Fannie Mae CEO, and noted white male, is far more closely connected to the Obama campaign. And then there is a sad, obviously pained, white woman thrown in for good measure.

Is the ad racist? Ye gods, I have no idea anymore!

But here’s the thing. It’s very hard to imagine the McCain ad-meisters who came up with this ad not having a very conscious discussion over how the ad would be perceived, and whether it would spark accusations of racism, and whether that would be politically advantageous. Dial us up a white granny and see if they’ll fall for it!

So are non-racist guys who consider exploiting people’s non-racist anger over allegations of racism… racist? Ye gods, I still have no idea, but now I have a headache!

Conservatives Are More Likely to Believe Falsehoods If Told They Are False… And Why That Might Be Sensible Of Them

September 15, 2008

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone versed in psychology, but more and more research is supporting the idea that political falsehoods are effective: even if they are later exposed as false. Whether you be Democrat or Republican, the emotional effect of a compelling narrative or juicy smear seems to remain even if its decisively debunked. While we all seem to form knee-jerk attitudes initially because of certain claims, but we don’t base the attitude on the continued veracity claims: the attitude stands on its own with out without the survival of the supporting claims.

But in some cases, it’s even more bizarre than that. As political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler discovered, conservatives are especially prone to a sort of backlash effect: being given evidence that a claim is false seems to make them more likely to believe it’s true:

In a paper approaching publication, Nyhan, a PhD student at Duke University, and Reifler, at Georgia State University, suggest that Republicans might be especially prone to the backfire effect because conservatives may have more rigid views than liberals: Upon hearing a refutation, conservatives might “argue back” against the refutation in their minds, thereby strengthening their belief in the misinformation. Nyhan and Reifler did not see the same “backfire effect” when liberals were given misinformation and a refutation about the Bush administration’s stance on stem cell research.

Kevin Drum thinks that this effect may have something to do with the carefully celebrated disdain many conservatives have cultivated for experts and media sources in general, and there may be something to that. Drum also notes that the source of the refutation didn’t seem to help either: conservatives seem more likely to believe a politically convenient falsehood even if it’s FoxNews that’s trying to correct the misinformation.

Liberals will no doubt find this research as yet more evidence that their counterparts are indeed stubborn science-haters who prefer ideology to reality (conservatives may, ironically, respond by denying the science behind this study). But before we go whole-hog down that route, I can think of one major explanation for the results that Drum might have missed, and for obvious partisan reasons.

Simply put, this research might not be evidence of conservative pigheadedness: it could just as easily be taken as evidence of legitimate conservative cockiness in the face of consistently lousy critics. That is, it could be that, in the actual real-world experience of most conservatives over the past few decades, prominent “refutations” of ideologically pro-conservative claims really have turned out to be wrong a lot of the time. Perhaps even so much that encountering strong objections to such claims is itself a good statistical predictor of their veracity.

This isn’t necessarily a rational reaction on a case by case basis; it doesn’t have to be. Like any Pavlovian mechanism, what matters is simply its general effectiveness as an association over time and experience. A knee-jerk “backfire effect” response may not make conservatives look very good in a controlled situation in which the claim is already known to be wrong. But it might be a reaction that’s served conservatives pretty well in everyday political life.

Thus, what may be at work here is simply a difference in actual historical experience. Refutations of claims that liberals like may simply have turned out to be valid more often than the refutations of claims conservatives like. And because each group has had different experiences, they’ve developed different knee-jerk mechanisms for how they process a refutation of a politically convenient claim.

Of course, this explanation would require you to basically accept that, in practice, conservative claims really are right more often than liberal ones. Or, at least, that critics of core conservative claims tend to be a lot sloppier and untrustworthy than critics of liberal claims. As someone that leans towards the liberal side of things myself, my own knee-jerk reaction is to find such possibilities absurd: how could our “reality-based community” be less reliable than… than… them?!

The problem, of course, is that I’m obviously too biased to subjectively sum up such a broad and comprehensive balance sheet of overall trustworthiness. Nor can I think of any immediate way to test a partisan bias in “accuracy” empirically.

But I do know that it’s at least a possible explanation for the highly partisan nature of the “backfire effect” that the researchers observed; it’s one which I can’t, as a good social scientist, immediately discount just because I happen to get all worked up about McCain’s latest campaign ads.

And it is an intriguing thought in any case: that the individually irrational behavior of a certain group towards criticism could itself be evidence that their ideological red meat is generally more accurate in the face of criticism.

McCain Picks Sarah Palin as VP… Analysis

August 29, 2008

Palin has landed? If so, it looks like I was right about McCain’s strategy in VP picks. It only remains to be seen whether or not Obama’s failure to anticipate, or at least pro-actively counter, this move will cost him in the way I expect.

When it comes to message, Palin ironically seems to undercut virtually every major line of criticism the McCain camp has so-far employed against Obama. Palin was a former beauty-pageant contestant: surely the crown jewel of the “vapid celebrity” image. Palin has little political experience (undercutting McCain’s claims of similar worries about Obama) and an abuse-of-power scandal under her belt (playing into the “3rd term for Bush” narrative). But the sort of people who buy into these sorts of character narratives are notoriously immune to hypocrisy, and even if they weren’t, what really McCain needs more than anything else is something that will shake up the race big time and keep the “bitter Hillary supporters” narrative in play. Palin fits the bill.

While Palin isn’t actually the first woman to be a Vice-Presidential nominee, that actually matters far less than the possibility that she could be the first woman to become Vice-President, and with her on the ticket, some measure of Obama’s uniquely historic appeal of a “first” is definitively blunted.

Like I said previously: this is a savvy move, and one that Obama’s camp had every opportunity to strangle in the crib. Either they don’t think it will play out in McCain’s favor, or they think that Biden will have some advantage that I’ve yet to see myself. Palin is also as right-wing as they come on social issues, completing McCain’s own retreat from his former life as a maverick and near-independent.

Public Support for “Fairness” Doctrine Disgusting

August 15, 2008

There’s just not a whole lot to say about it.

41% of Americans believe that the government should “require all radio and television stations to offer equal amounts of conservative and liberal political commentary.” Many even want to extend the doctrine, which would essentially enforce points of view on the listening market rather than letting listeners decide, on the internet, which is even more absurd.

I find this poll result almost as upsetting as the high number of Americans who believe in old-school creationism, or can’t find their own country on a map of the world.

It is hard to know exactly how people interepreted the poll questions. Perhaps they didn’t entirely understand what they were agreeing with: perhaps they only meant that they wished media sources as a whole were more balanced and thoughtful. I’m all for that. But the way to achieve it is by promoting, recommending, and endorsing with your feet those voices that take the time to find reason, evenhandedness, and balance.

Forcing by regulation show by show, site by site balance, on the other hand, is as silly as demanding that two people having an argument in person each give equal time defending the other guys position. The whole point of the liberal scientific method, the whole point of free speech and open debate, is that we hash things out in adversarial contest. It isn’t that we try to artificially create balance: we find it in the midst of neverending debate. It’s a collective, society-wide process.

The other faulty assumption I suspect is at work here is the idea that there needs to be “balance” across every single medium of communication. But there’s nothing wrong with the fact that conservatives happen to prefer radio, and liberals newspapers, and so on. The point is the views expressed and people’s free access to them, not how those views happen to be transmitted.

Obama Still Wrong on Race: McCain’s Smears Of a Different Sort

July 31, 2008

Josh Marshall over at Talkingpoints Memo is having a little spat with Jake Tapper at ABC. The subject? Whether Obama is right to imply that McCain has been pushing xenophobia and racist themes in his recent bout of negative campaigning.

As Obama put it:

“But, since they don’t have any new ideas the only strategy they’ve got in this election is to try to scare you about me. They’re going to try to say that I’m a risky guy, they’re going to try to say, ‘Well, you know, he’s got a funny name and he doesn’t look like all the presidents on the dollar bills and the five dollar bills and, and they’re going to send out nasty emails.

But Tapper has it right here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Penn & Teller BullS***!: Learn What a Labyrinth Is Jillette!

July 31, 2008

As a skeptic, it’s hard not to like Penn & Teller’s Showtime show BullS***! But it’s also hard to avoid the fact that the show often skimps on the skepticism and science in favor of some seriously self-righteous ranting. The result is a product that’s hit-or-miss when it comes to factual matters and honest debate, but nearly always dead on when it comes to satire.

Their recent episode “Being Green,” in which they poke fun at some truly loopy enviro-hype, is a perfect example. There’s plenty of utterly ridiculous “carbon consciousness” cults and other such fluff out there, all well deserving of a critical eye and a derisive snort. But as is often the case, Penn mixes his bombastic, disdainful style with sloppy science and sometimes even just plain ignorance. He starts the episode, for instance, with the grossly misleading trope about how scientists were predicting an ice age only 30 years ago.

But it’s not the big controversial issues that best illustrate this problem: it’s the sometimes little things that he gets wrong that turn into blowhardery.

As far as I’m concerned, his real crime comes during his otherwise side-splitting coverage of an alt-med therapist who claims to treat the “eco-anxiety” experienced by some truly hapless goofs. After handing her patients “river rocks” and asking them to explain their feelings about their mother, Earth, she takes them on a spiritualized walk through a labyrinth with Jillette’s narration mocking her every step of the way.

But in the midst of it Jillette says something that’s just unforgiveable: (paraphrasing) “That’s not a labyrinth! A labyrinth has choices! This is just a boring walk to nowhere!”

Uh… no, technically it doesn’t. Didn’t the Muppets teach you anything, Mr. Jillette?

Conservapedia’s “Reasonable Explainations” for Atheism

July 28, 2008

Oy. Via Daniel De Groot at Open Left comes a glimpse into the minds of people that cannot win arguments outside of their own little sandbox:

As De Groot notes, it’s not entirely clear what the unreasonable explanations for atheism would be, in light of this list.

But I have an excellent relationship with my father, Conservapedia. Thanks for the concern.