One of the characteristics of defective thinking, particularly of cranks (see theHOWTO) that we’ve discussed on scienceblogs is their poor ability to process information that is contradictory. Last week there were some interesting reports on a study which suggested those who believe in conspiracy theories can hold two seemingly contradictory pieces of information in their heads and not see the conflict. For instance:

“The more people were likely to endorse the idea Princess Diana was murdered, the more they were likely to believe that Princess Diana is alive,” explained Douglas. People who thought it was unlikely she was murdered were also unlikely to think she did not die.

This study is great because it’s direct confirmation that people who buy into conspiracy theories have fundamentally defective thought processes that allow them to believe things that are logically inconsistent. Just like we’ve been saying for years.

Now, examine instance the Fox News reaction to the improving jobs numbers from the last month.

The right has struggled with the news. Mitt Romney went into denial; his supporters desperately tried to convince people not to give President Obama credit; GOP leaders on Capitol Hill found themselves at a loss for words; and Fox News spent much of Friday going to comical lengths to pretend the jobs report wasn’t newsworthy at all.

And then, there are the conspiracy theorists.

Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) came first, arguing on Friday there’s “something suspicious about the job numbers.” He did not elaborate.

On Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” this morning, the cast went down this road with more enthusiasm. Here’s what Eric Bolling told viewers:

“So are they playing around with the numbers? Look, it’s the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s supposed to be non-partisan, but that’s the Department of Labor. Hilda Solis heads the Department of Labor, Hilda Solis works directly to Obama. I’m, you know.”

Steve Doocy raised the question of whether the Obama administration is “cooking the books,” while Gretchen Carlson emphasized the fact that this is “an election year.”

The reality of the numbers isn’t what they want to hear, it conflicts with their overriding ideology that Obama is doing a terrible job to matter what, so it must be false. How could it be false? It’s a conspiracy! The department of labor statistics is cooking the books for Obama (but they didn’t cook it any other time in his presidency when it made him look bad or for any other president). Next month, if the numbers sour, they will again attain legitimacy, as long as the evidence is supportive of the overriding principal of Obama being the devil, it’s true, if it conflicts, it’s a conspiracy.

This is the classic cognitive dissonance of the crank. They’re fixated on an idea, and when the data supports their belief it’s true, when it’s not, it’s false. There’s a conspiracy to manipulate the data because there can never be data that proves the crank is wrong about their overvalued idea.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony Mach
    February 13, 2012

    I’m skeptical of such numbers, no matter who is in power, no matter what country it is. Usually, here high unemployment numbers coincide with campaigns to lower corporate taxes or get rid of some employee’s rights. Low numbers tend to come before the next election, combined with praises how the current government has done good for the economy. And look, there is an election coming up in your country! What a pleasant surprise. (On the other hand, after the crisis since 2008, it had to go up *sometime*).

    But granted, I see that many people over at your side of the pond have an issue with Obama and just look for something to paint him – the confirmation bias is strong in them.

  2. #2 Eric Lund
    February 13, 2012

    @Tony: There are good reasons to be skeptical about employment statistics produced by the US government, and on some blogs where I lurk, there are people who make these arguments. For instance, there are several different ways of calculating unemployment, and the method used today (U3) yields a lower number than the method used in the Depression (U6). But the U3 reporting method has been around for several decades, and the U3 vs. U6 debate has been around since at least the Reagan administration (possibly longer, but I would have been too young to know about it). What MarkH is discussing in this post is people who are positing a conspiracy on the part of the government to support Obama’s reelection, claiming without evidence that there have been significant changes in the methodology during Obama’s administration. The Republicans want Obama to take the blame for high unemployment and not get credit for lowering the unemployment rate. There are good reasons to criticize Obama’s handling of the economy, but this isn’t among them.

  3. #3 dhogaza
    February 14, 2012

    What MarkH is discussing in this post is people who are positing a conspiracy on the part of the government to support Obama’s reelection, claiming without evidence that there have been significant changes in the methodology

    That’s the point. The number it self is somewhat meaningless, and different methodologies will give different answers (which makes it hard to compare unemployment numbers between different countries, among other things).

    But if the methodology isn’t changed, the *monthly change* will be meaningful. It’s the fact that unemployement has dropped by (say) 1% that’s important, not the actual six digit numbers tossed out as losses or gains to the figure each month.

    It’s similar to the thermometer argument and measuring the trend in a particular location. If the thermometer consistently reads (say) 5 degrees high, the error makes no difference whatsoever in any trend computed from a series of measurements using that thermometer.

    And of course the conspiracy theorists seem to be missing the fact that employment numbers reported by non-government sources are rising as the supposedly faked unemployement numbers are dropping …

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