Managed ignorance and statistics –”if I don’t like them, they must be manipulated”

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Knowledge does not guard against conspiracy theories
[Via Brendan Nyhan]

When the September jobs report showed that unemployment had dropped to an unexpectedly low 7.8%, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch helped launch a new conspiracy theory when he tweeted: “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change numbers.” Even though the unemployment statistics are produced by the respected and politically insulated Bureau of Labor Statistics, Welch’s theory was disseminated by numerous conservativepundits and amplified by a wave of irresponsible media coverage. As we approach Election Day, it’s worth taking a look back and assessing the damage.

To assess the prevalence of conspiracy theory beliefs about manipulation of the unemployment data, I contributed several questions to a YouGov poll conducted October 27-29, 2012 (margin of error: +/- 4.6%; topline data and sample demographics here). The poll was conducted before the October unemployment figures were released last Friday and thus reflects public beliefs about the September unemployment data approximately three weeks after its release on October 5.

I first asked survey respondents how accurate they believe the 7.8% unemployment figure is on a five-point scale from “Extremely accurate” to “Not at all accurate.” The median response was the middle category of “Somewhat accurate,” which may reflect skepticism about the way unemployment figures are calculated or a general distrust of government. However, there was a steep partisan gradient in mean responses by party. When we separate Democrats (including independents who lean Democrat), Republicans (including leaners), and true independents, we find that independents and especially Republicans are far less likely than Democrats to believe that the unemployment statistics are accurate (click graphics for larger versions):



Not too surprising that data that supports one side are seen as accurate and the other side says are inaccurate. There is a gray area with any statistical approach and possible points for error to enter.  The immediate labor numbers are often revised as better numbers come in. So the degree of accuracy is more an opinion.

I would have said somewhat accurate as they are the best we have at the time, recognizing that they will get better as time goes on and that some data, even with large error bars, is often better than no data.But someone else may say they are not very accurate because of this uncertainty and should not be used to make decisions until the accuracy gets better.

A valid opinion we could discuss.

But the poll shows the problem is more than just how accurate different groups think the numbers are. 

There is a partisan divide on actual fraud, actual manipulation of the data.


 No explanation how the figures might be manipulated, how different polls looking at different measures by hundreds of different people could be fraudulently altered. It is simply a conspiracy and that is that.

This short circuits any sort of discussion. That is what most conspiracy theories do.


And the greater the political knowledge is in each group, the greater the divide. 90% of the high-knowledge Republicans believe a conspiracy theory for which there is simply no proof, not even the slightest hint. Less than 10% of the Democrats believe the data are manipulated.

If the data do not fit, simply ignore the data. “It is not worthwhile because it is manipulated and thus false.” It can simply be ignored. This is managed ignorance.

Simply stating that they are manipulated stops the conversation. Anything anyone says about the numbers can simply be short-circuited by stating they are fake. No proof needed. No discussion of how they could be fake or how we could get better data. 

The fact that people will simply rationalize away any data they do not like – instead of trying to understand perhaps why the data show what they do or how we could get better data – is a hallmark of Cargo Cult Worlds. In this case, it may not make a real difference in things what a Democrat or Republican feels about a complex subject. The labor market may not care one way or the other how ignorant one slice of America is about the information.

But we see the same sort of managed ignorance with respect to so many complex things today.

One of these days, this managed ignorance will bite us in the butt big time. It may already have but too many people have just managed to ignore it.