Shock Poll: People Believe What They Are Told

The Washington Post and ABC News, having joined the rest of the news media in declaring the current government shutdown a national disaster, and entirely the fault of Donald Trump and the Republicans who hate immigrants and want to build a whites-only nation in which innocent children are stolen from their parents and murdered in cages, have produced a poll to prove it.

Here is the poll’s lead question, and the one being cited, misleadingly, for headlines all over the moronosphere:

Q: As you may know, the federal government has been partially shut down because Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress and Democrats in Congress cannot agree on laws about border security. Who do you think is mainly responsible for this situation?

The results of the poll, unsurprisingly, showed Trump and the Republicans as 53% responsible, the congressional Democrats as 29% responsible, both equally responsible at 13%, “neither” at 2%, and “no opinion” at 4%.

First of all, if you asked this exact question in a vacuum, without the respondents having been primed in any way, or provided any context, I guarantee the result would show “Donald Trump and the Republicans” as mainly responsible. Why? Because Donald Trump is the only individual person named in the question, and of course he is an extraordinarily famous person.

Furthermore, by lumping Trump together with “Republicans in Congress” as a single option, Trump’s name recognition, as well as his being the only actual person named, forces respondents to provide the optically convenient and obviously desired poll result: Trump and Republicans to blame; Democrats not to blame. 

Notice, further, that the accompanying story from the Washington Post, along with the piggybacking stories all over the internet, phrase the result as I have just done, namely that Trump and the GOP are “to blame” for the shutdown. But that is not what the poll asked. The poll question asks, “Who is mainly responsible?” Responsibility and blame are two entirely different things. I am responsible for the dinner I just cooked. I can only be said to be “to blame” for it if you have judged it to be a bad dinner. By framing the question as a matter of “responsibility,” the poll invites respondents who are supportive of the GOP’s position to accept their party’s responsibility, without equating this with blame, which therefore pads the results on the side of “Republicans to blame,” for the purposes of reportage, when that is not what the result actually shows.

The social scientists, if they were honest, would have a field day dissecting the language used in these kinds of poll questions, and the misleading way the results are reported. By naming only Trump personally, the question produces an obvious bias in favor of choosing Trump. By making the Republicans in Congress a mere tagalong with Trump, which is illegitimate in the American system of government, the question uses the name-recognition bias to drag the unnamed Republicans into responsibility when it is really Trump alone to whom respondents are assigning responsibility (as Trump himself has proudly and repeatedly done). And by asking who is responsible, and then reporting this responsibility as blame, the media knowingly misrepresents what the (already distorted) results really suggest to make the Republicans and Trump look bad.

Social scientists are not honest, however, so they will never talk about such things, or at least not where their own political biases and preferences are being promoted by the distortions.

But happily we don’t need social scientists, in this or any other context. We have an honest newspaper man to explain the whole thing, namely Charles Foster Kane:

Charles: Read the cable.

Bernstein: “Girls delightful in Cuba. Stop. Could send you prose poems about scenery, but don’t feel right spending your money. Stop. There is no war in Cuba, signed Wheeler.” Any answer?

Charles: Yes. “Dear Wheeler: you provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war.”

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