Epistemic Closure or Getting the Answer Wrong for the Team?

Dylan Matthews at Wonkblog highlights an intriguing study of partisan influences over knowledge:  If you pay them money, partisans will tell you the truth

One of the most infamous and dispiriting findings in recent political science research is that partisans can’t even agree on basic facts, at least when those facts bear on politics. Princeton’s Larry Bartels found that, in 1988, Democrats were much less likely than Republicans to correctly answer questions about whether inflation went down under President Ronald Reagan (it did) and whether unemployment also fell (it did)


Subsequent research found that correcting these kinds of errors actually made the situation worse. Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth and Jason Reifler of Georgia State found that Republicans presented with news articles pointing out that there were no WMDs in Iraq were more likely to say that such weapons were found than Republicans who didn’t read those articles. The truth, in other words, triggered a partisan backlash.

However, a new study indicates that perhaps the issue less about true misunderstanding of the facts than it is about signaling partisan preferences:

Answering incorrectly, under this view, is just a way to register an opinion in the survey, not an expression of what the survey respondent actually believes. Partisans aren’t closed off from reality, by this theory. They’re just lying.

Political scientists John Bullock, Alan Gerber, Gregory Huber (all at Yale) and Seth Hill (at UC-San Diego) have a new paper that presents strong evidence for the they’re-just-liars theory.


The authors conclude that false answers — like Democrats saying that casualties in Iraq increased from 2007 to 2008 — are just cheap talk, a way to signal a party affiliation rather than a sincere belief.

I would recommend reading the whole post.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Matt Bernius says:

    Great link!

    The authors conclude that false answers — like Democrats saying that casualties in Iraq increased from 2007 to 2008 — are just cheap talk, a way to signal a party affiliation rather than a sincere belief.

    This has been the problem with reading too far into responses to the entire “Is Barak Obama a Muslim/American” question.

  2. Rafer Janders says:

    The authors conclude that false answers — like Democrats saying that casualties in Iraq increased from 2007 to 2008 —

    Umm, casualties in Iraq DID increase from 2007 to 2008, since casualties always go up the longer a war goes on — you can’t have people get un-killed or un-wounded. The rate of increase of casualties may have gone down, but that’s a different thing, and questions like these practically invite imprecisions in answering since the person has to guess what the interviewer is really asking.

    So, perhaps, not the best example to indicate the required “both sides do it” narrative.

  3. john personna says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    One wonders though why on the really crazy questions respondents think that the partisan answer is a net benefit for their side.

    Say “was X a false-flag attack by President Y?”

    No one really gains by crazy.

  4. john personna says:

    BTW, Dan Ariely’s Irrational Behavior class told me that there was big difference in difficulty and guilt between a “fudge” and a lie.

    Fudging numbers for your side is much easier than an outright falsehood.

  5. One thing the study doesn’t nail down: when people change answers as a result of the monetary inducement, does that mean they don’t actually believe what they said when there was no such inducement, or that they know what the socially expected answer is and are willing to (in their mind) lie for cash?

  6. Rafer Janders says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    And another point: there’s a difference between “false answers” that (a) people deliberately lie about and (b) people are genuinely confused about. In the question above re casualties in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, the authors seem to assume that people who gave the wrong answer instead knew the right one — however, it’s equally possible that they in fact didn’t know at all.

    I’m very politically-engaged, foreign and military policy is a big interest of mine, I paid A LOT of attention to the Iraq War while it was going on, and was I believe fairly well informed as to the level of casualties. And yet if you asked me five years later, in 2013, as to whether casualties (or the rate of increase of casualties) was higher in 2007 or 2008, I’d be hard pressed to answer. It’s fairly specialized knowledge.

    That’s a lot different than, say, a Republican asserting a blatant falsehood such as the claim that we found WMD in Iraq, or that the science behind global warming isn’t settled.

  7. Trumwill Mobile says:

    @Rafer Janders: The issue is not whether Democrats did or did not know the casualty rate. The issue is that they, like Republicans, answered differently when there was money on the line. Suggesting a disparity between what they say in a vacuum and what they say when the accuracy of their answers has a material effect.