Fact Checking


Matt Yglesias summarizes some interesting results from a study that examined the connection between support for the Iraq war and beliefs about it:

The authors examined the pervasiveness of three pieces of misinformation in the American public: that the United States has discovered WMD in Iraq, that evidence has been found showing that the Iraqi regime worked closely with al-Qaeda, and that world opinion favored America's decision to go to war. Support for the war was found to be highly correlated with the possession of false beliefs on these three matters—86 percent of those who believed all three supported the war, as did 78 percent of those who believed two, and 53 percent of those who believed just one. Among people who knew the truth on all three scores, just 23 percent supported the war. One key finding was that misinformation about the state of world opinion was the single strongest predictor of support for the war.

Update: Commenters add the fair point, worth noting, that we don't know what sorts of countervailing false beliefs war opponents held. Also worth pointing out is that we don't know which way causation runs here. There's a well known cognitive phenomenon called confirmation bias: We tend to notice information and form beliefs that confirm what we thought in the first place. So it's not necessarily that people who supported the war did so because they had false beliefs. It may rather be that people who took a strong position on the war either way are more likely to later form beliefs—justified and unjustified—that give them the comfort of "confirming" that they were right.

NEXT: Just Desert

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  1. Wow and the same people bought stock in Enron and Pets.com, speculated in Beanie Babies and think Nader really helps consumers.

    People are idiots! Thanks for the news. This proves once and for all that the Iraq War was evil evil evil.

  2. An interesting study to go along with this can be found at


    or just pipa.org. They have good studies on the subject and surprise surprise, Fox News misleads more than any other network.

  3. I suspect a study linking opposition to the war with false beliefs might be similarly insightful. I wonder which false belief would be the best predictor of opposition to the war?

  4. I wonder what false belief would be the best predictor of opposition to the war? There are so many candidates to choose from.

  5. While that study is certainly interesting, has anything comparable been done to see what false beliefs correlate with opposition to the Iraq war? I would expect that the no-blood-for-oil crowd also has their false beliefs, which in turn inform their stance.

  6. I’d like to see what percentage of opponents of the war think the Mossad was behind 9-11. Before I get jumped on for bringing that up, let me say that I was at a picnic w/ a bunch of Arab-Americans (mostly Egyptians) and I heard that falsehood repeated. The funny thing was the reason they thought it was the Mossad was because they felt Arabs and al-Queda, specifically, didn’t have the sophistication or organization to pull it off, rather than anti-Semitism. My father and I were so offended, we decided we couldn’t engage in an intelligent discussion with those people.

    Though the rousing debates on Islam and what is allowed were quite enjoyable, especially when we hit polygamy.

  7. Mo,

    They are clearly underestimating the ability of Muslims, or Arabs even more specifically, to coordinate and cause havoc and mayhem. The crusaders learned this difficult lesson on the Fourth of July, 1187 when they were massacred on the Horns of Hattin.

  8. “I would expect that the no-blood-for-oil crowd also has their false beliefs, which in turn inform their stance.”

    Not all opponents of the war are radical leftist conspiracy theorists. Also, it bears pointing out that this was not merely a question of people having strange unsubstantiated beliefs. These were issues relating to major planks of the case for war which received extensive media coverage.

  9. I opposed the war because I saw it as (a) a distraction from the real war and as (b) dangerous to France because of (a) and because of the hostility it will create in France’s “back yard.”

  10. JB,
    I agree. My teenage and college years are a testament to the ability of an Arab to cause havoc and mayhem. 🙂

  11. Is this supposed to be interesting? Most people are morons on all issues and the majority is usually misinformed. But if 60% think birds fly on good vibrations, that doesn’t discount that birds really do fly.

    I suspect that is just another crude attempt to smear informed people because they happen to share a position with the mass-idiots.

  12. For perhaps a decade or more I have believed that a fundamental reason for many of our political and social problems is the poorly informed citizens of this country. This study is just more fuel for the fire. Its not really a left or right issue, just ignorance. Though at present the far right seems to have the lead in ignorance.

    Also, see the book “What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters” by Scott Keeter & Colleage.

  13. Yeah freedom of opinions is a bitch, ain’t it midori? How the majoriy suddenly became the “far right” is hard to get, but you must be more informed than me and the rest of the retarded American public.

  14. I’m curious about the correlation between not knowing the correct answer to the question did the US act unilaterally in Iraq, and support angainst the war.

    I notice the authors used this term in their polling, “Of the thirty-eight countries polled (including twenty European countries), not a single one showed majority support for unilateral action, and in nearly every case the percentage was very low.”

    Wonder if any of them will buy a dictionary with the grant money they’re gunning for here.

  15. I’m always bothered by polarization. It always strikes me as unfortunate that I can ask one or two questions and then predict (with better than the 50-50 accuracy a random guess would give on these questions) so many of that person’s stances.

    For instance, suppose I ask a person: “Is it worse to lie under oath about adultery or to lie under oath about war?” Now, that is obviously a loaded question. But that’s sort of the point. Once I get a response to that loaded question I can predict the person’s response to so many other questions, like:

    Should abortion be legal?
    Did Bush lie to get us to go to war?
    Is Richard Clark credible?
    Is Linda Tripp credible?
    Should dimpled chads be counted?
    Is gun control a good idea?
    Did Bush’s tax cuts help stimulate job growth?


    Granted, plenty of people deviate from the mold on at least some of these questions. But I wager that, based on the answer to the first loaded question, I could predict people’s responses with better than the 50% accuracy of Ms. Cleo and the Psychic Hotline.

    Sad, isn’t it? We choose our team, and then we hear what we want to hear.

    By the way, I’m pretty sure that I’m guilty of this myself. That doesn’t make it any less lamentable.

  16. “We choose our team, and then we hear what we want to hear.”

    Funny how you just posted on the folly of questioning someone’s motives, then you do the exact same thing.

  17. Tomcat-

    See, I just proved my own thesis! 🙂

    But seriously, I can rectify my inconsistency: I might not know what motivates a person to hold their “core” position, but I can (sadly) predict that once that “core” position is firmly rooted, we’ll all-too-often hear what we want to hear to reaffirm it.

  18. To elaborate:

    I don’t care why people side with the left, the right, the far left, the far right, some particular libertarian faction, or any other faction. At various times people will claim that it’s for principle, or pragmatism, or whatever. In any case, they’ll always claim that the other side picked their team for weird reasons.

    However, once we’ve picked our teams, we seem to be pretty good about only hearing what we want to hear.

    And I plead 100% guilty on that count.

  19. Thoreau,

    I think you raise a very true, interesting, and indeed lamentable point. This is something I’ve noticed as well, in myself and others on occasion. I think it’s a matter of convenience that people tend to choose a side and stick with it, regardless of the accuracy of the data they used in making that initial decision. I figure, the average person is very busy with the minutia (sp?) of everyday life, so picking a side is a very expediant way of feeling/appearing interested or well-informed with out making the investment of real time and effort. This is not only true for political discourse, but for any field or body of knowledge. Take art or music, it is easier to pick a painter and say “I like his/her work” than it is to evaluate each painting as a unique experience.

  20. Wow, a positive response to one of my posts! Thanks!

  21. Sure, correlation doesn’t prove causation. Science 101. However, if correlation data supports an obvious mechanism, well, now we have something.

    So, here’s a reasonable mechanism: GIGO, or bad data in, bad decision out. Correlation: people that believed bad data about the war, made a bad decision about the war.

    Of course, with people there’s always confounding variables. For instance, it’s likely for many that the data they believed about WMD’s, world opinion, etc. was a matter of faith. Like Mark Twain said: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so”.

  22. Thoreau, make that two. I too agree with your larger point. I guess I just don’t see why that behavior is lamentable, as you feel it is.

  23. To add to throeau’s good point (see, there are two good comments!), the selection of a team or an appeal to authority is one way to deal with the sad truth that the real answer to 99.99999% of questions is “I don’t have enough information to have an informed opinion.”

    I find it sad that a ‘good’ interviewer most of the time tries to get a politician or public figure to commit to a position that they only hold vaguely. The honesty of “I don’t know, but I choose X for the following reasons,” is viewed by the public at large and the media in particular as totally unacceptable. The idea is that you must be hiding something if you won’t commit 100% to a certain idea or refute it with every ounce of your being.

    Similarly, people hate the notion that most political differences are not about who is most like Hitler, but are differences in values. If egalitarianism is very important to you, modern liberalism is not a bad answer. The problem is that you have to crap on individual liberty in the process, which offends libertarians. The opposite is also true.

    Skepticism is a lost art.

  24. I would argue that one of the study’s assumptions, that it is false “that evidence has been found showing that the Iraqi regime worked closely with al-Qaeda,” is itself false as the points detailed in the “Feith Memo,” as I’ve come to call it, have to my knowledge never been disproven (mainly because the press completely swept it under the carpet).

    Of course, a lot of people would probably quibble over the word “closely” and argue that even if the Feith Memo is true, the Baathists and AQ weren’t buddy-buddy enough to justify the war.

  25. I was, and still am, about 51% in favor of invading and occupying Iraq at the time and under the circumstances we did. This was clearly an optional war – at least the time and circumstances of its inception were optional. I have no doubt we’d have had to go in and clean up the mess we helped create there in the first place eventually, and finish what we left undone in 1992.

    My mugwump stance on it was a consequence of my admitting that I did not have enough information, and that there was no way for me to GET enough information to make a well-informed opinion one way or the other. On some level, one must trust that those charged with public safety and national defense know what they are talking about. I am always skeptical on that point, but with the immediacy and unpredictability of terrorism, one must err on the side of caution. Caution sometimes manifests itself in bowing to authority, unfortunately.

    Since hindsight is 20-20, however, I am 100% against the conduct of the Bush administration since the end of major hostilities there. It seems we have bungled every opportunity to regain international support and the trust of important sectors of Iraqi society. Too much of our national blood and treasure have been spent in steadfastly keeping the international community out, and being fainthearted with respect to quelling guerilla-style hostility inside the country under occupation.

    I don’t think it’s time to get out, but I do think it’s time to let a whole lot of cooperative others in.

  26. Voters in a liberal democracy– when asked– give second-hand opinions, couched in second-rate rhetoric and second-rate perceptions…the same way the same people, as consumers, make their choices in the marketplace.

    And just as the same people, as consumers, over time and across many decisions, make better choices for themselves than any “experts” (who arguably know a lot more about the goods from a Consumer’s Reports standpoint) would have chosen for them– so as voters, the same people make better choices for themselves than better-informed experts will make for them.

    Expertise can be an illusion, and a trap.

  27. Andrew – A good point. Not sure how it pertains here, though.

    I am not a military person, but I work with many military personnel in a part time job administrating the ASVAB military aptitude test in local high schools. I have talked with people who were active in Desert Storm now doing recruiting rotations, those back from tours in Iraq currently and waiting to be sent back, and those about to be rotated there. I think many of these “experts’ have opinions I would consider more informed than mine, and I am tempted to defer to them at times, particularly on points in which I have no experience.

    Strangely, these “informed” opinions are as mixed as those of us who only get our info from the media. Almost uniformly, however, they tell me that the bulk of what we are doing there is positive. I am relieved by that. Not necessarily convinced, but relieved.

  28. Jeff

    The opinions of the military guys you know interest me greatly– but they aren’t the “experts” I was thinking of. The Experts would have answered all the questions on Julian’s “quiz” correctly…whereas the troopers you talked to likely wouldn’t have done any better than the public in general– except they DO know what they are talking about, albeit it would be easy to make them seem ignorant.

  29. I’m with Jade on the falsely presumed truthfullness of Iraq not working closely with al Qaida. Clearly, we have a case of the great unwashed public perceiving a truth in the face of the collective head in the sand approach of major media. This calls for rejoicing. Similarly, Iraqi did posess weapons of mass destruction. The fact that they were overestimated and/or not found hardly erases this fact which the responders may understandably have confused with the related question of whether weapons had been found. So, Julian, I don’t know what this study says about the respondents, but we can definitely say that the so called facts in question are influenced by the agenda of the questioners. No?

  30. Andrew,
    I bet 90% of REASONers would get every question on Julian’s “quiz” correct. We’re all pretty well informed and even the hawks acknowledge that there were no WMDs in Iraq and that there’s no solid evidence showing Iraq and al-Queda are closely linked. They are hawks because they have valid reasons to support the war besides these falsehoods. We are hardly experts, merely on top of lots of the news.

    I think the experts you mean are guys like Tenet, Clarke, etc. Am I correct in this assumption?

  31. Lloyd-

    Too many double negatives and twists and turns make my head spin. Your paragraph reminds me of the survey question which “found” that a shocking percentage of the American people were Holocaust deniers. It was something like “Do you think there is no way that the Holocaust deniers are not telling the truth when they say the Holocaust did not happen?”

  32. In a faith based society, there are no incontrovertible facts! 🙁

  33. Jeff Clothier,

    Front line soldiers (and as I was formerly one I can speak with some expertise on this) aren’t particularly the best audience to survey. Partly because the view of soldiers myopic, and is formed in an echo-chamber. Indeed, the world one exists tends to be rather particular in its parameters; and certainly these larger meta-questions aren’t at the forefront when one is in combat. Your concerns are more along the lines of “The fellow trying to infiltrate our lines is going to get a taste of blade” – and then you attack him, and sink your knife into his neck. Otherwise you are sitting and training and talking about rumors. 🙂

  34. Mo

    I think you make a good point. I believe there is a sort of well-understood Amateur Atanding thing on HandR (probably some other blogs) that moderate some of the foibiles of spurious expertise. Hobbyist and “buffs” are the kind of people I turn to when I feel I dDO need advice. Reason posters are people who are usually kind of self-educated, and who take an interest in the news that is not only greater than their neighbors, but usually has no connection to their employment. This is much different than the credentialled and employed “expert”, who needs to tailor his advice to carreer requirements.

    Lawyers don’t like to get free advice, for lots of reasons.

  35. “GIVE free advice”

  36. Active duty military are also the most relentlessly propagandized people on earth.

  37. How interesting is it that of the people who think WMD were discovered in Iraq, a high percentage support the war? This depends on how many such people they are. If one-half of one percent of the population believes the WMD thesis, it doesn’t prove much except that there’s a small fringe which holds such beliefs.

    The more interesting question would be: Of the people who support the war (which we know to be a large number), what percentage hold these false beliefs? That would tell us whether these beliefs are a major factor or not.

  38. asq,

    A false belief that would be a good predictor of opposition to the war would be:

    ‘Do you believe the Bush Administration is trying to promote Armageddon?’

    I am writing this having skipped over many posts. Hope I’m not repeating someone else’s comment.

  39. Jean Bart – I think you are right. The military experience is a very fine lens, but one that is sharply focused. I imagine one either thinks very clearly and sharply or ceases to think altogether when he is in danger of getting his arse shot off in a few seconds’ time.

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