No, all Americans are not created equal when it comes to belief in conspiracy theories

In a recent Monkey Cage post on belief in conspiracy theories among liberals and conservatives, Alfred Moore, Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski write some things that make sense to me and some things that don’t.

The part that makes sense is their citation of the research of Dan Kahan finding that roughly equal proportions of political liberals and conservatives in the United States engaged in irrational or “motivated” reasoning when thinking about science.

The parts of Moore et al.’s post that I disagree with are their summary of the results and, more specifically, their characterization of certain beliefs as “conspiracy theories.”

Start with the summary. The subheading to the linked post is, “Are all Americans created equal when it comes to fearing collusion and conspiracies? Yes, they are.” But that’s not right at all. Some Americans believe in conspiracies (however these are defined) and some don’t. A near-zero correlation with political ideology is not the same as all Americans being equal in this regard. Kahan’s research finds variation based on respondents’ “science literacy.”

More particularly, Moore et al. criticize liberal pundit Paul Krugman for writing, “Unlike the crazy conspiracy theories of the left — which do exist, but are supported only by a tiny fringe — the crazy conspiracy theories of the right are supported by important people: powerful politicians, television personalities with large audiences.” They respond, “Krugman is mostly wrong that nuttiness is found mainly among conservatives.” But that’s not what Krugman wrote! Krugman didn’t write that conspiracy theories are mostly found among conservatives, he wrote that the people on the right who support crazy conspiracy theories are more important, in general, than the people on the left who support crazy conspiracy theories.

I’m not saying Krugman is completely on the ball on this issue; see Kahan’s useful deconstruction of a different Krugman column on the same topic — but the issues are subtle, and if you want to pick on a Krugman column that distinguishes between “the fringe” and “important people,” it’s not enough to report on general poll findings.

Finally, there’s this. Moore et al. characterize the following statement as conspiratorial: “Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway.” Huh? I guess it all depends on the definition of “a few people.”

They also write, “When science means nuclear weapons, innovation and winning the space race, conservatives love it.” Actually, when I last looked at the data, I found that “support for the space program does not seem particularly associated with conservative or Republican positions.” There is indeed a logic to the idea that conservatives should support the space program (see my last paragraph here) but the data don’t seem to bear this out. My quick understanding of this is that political ideologies are interesting but ultimately you can’t make sense of them: any given person’s views are a tangle with many possibilites.

Moore also writes that “we have to wonder what would happen to liberals’ belief in climate science if the solution to climate change were freer markets and smaller government.” But this statement itself seems to me to be ideologically loaded, in that one liberal response to climate change is to reduce oil subsidies (see here, for example).

In short, I think Moore, Parent, and Uscinski have done a valuable service by publicizing the interesting and important work of Dan Kahan, and I think they’d do even better if they would avoid oversimplification.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University. His books include Bayesian Data Analysis; Teaching Statistics: A Bag of Tricks; and Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do.
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