Saturday, June 04, 2011

Media Bias and the Perceived Intelligence of Politicians

My previous post dealt with an incident in which something a politician said was used by her critics as evidence of historical ignorance. In that particular case, for reasons I discussed, they were wrong—what she said did not imply what they claimed and if it had the implication would have been more nearly true than they realized.

But I am sure there are many other cases where a politician says something in public that really is strikingly wrong in one respect or another. Having read transcripts of my own speeches, I do not take that as much evidence against the speaker. In an unscripted context, it is quite easy to say things you don't mean—for instance to leave out the word "not," thus reversing the meaning of a sentence, or to change what you are saying in mid-sentence, with the result that the transcript shows the first half of one sentence followed by the second half of a different one.

What politicians say, however, mostly reaches the ears of voters through the media. That makes possible selective filtering. If you like the speaker, don't report the literal absurdity, on the reasonable enough grounds that he obviously didn't mean it. If you don't like the speaker, do report it, on the grounds that he is enough of an idiot so that he probably did mean it. The voters then conclude that the politicians whom the media they watch or read approve of are much more intelligent and reasonable than ones they disapprove of, whether or not it is true. Where the major media have fairly homogeneous beliefs—Sarah Palin is an obvious example—the result is that most people regard the disliked politicians as stupider and nuttier than they are. The exceptions are mostly the partisans on the other side; nowadays they can get the opposite filtering from blogs and web sites that share their bias, in the past from magazines that did.

As it happens, I know the opinion of two prominent past politicians held by someone who had had considerable first hand interaction with both. His view was that Barry Goldwater was an intelligent man although not an exceptionally intelligent one, and that Teddy Kennedy had a below-average IQ. That is not the view of the two men that one would have gotten from the media back when they were active politicians.


Miko said...

I agree with this description of the media as filter (and with what I take as your unstated premise that this situation is undesirable), but the question remains of how the media decides who they "like" in the first place.

Also, a VP nom in a presidential election is expected to get a certain amount of coverage. If you comb through the nom's public remarks and select the bits that sound the least crazy but come up far short of that expected amount, you're going to have to let some of the crazy through, no matter how much you like the candidate. The near-universal panning of both VP candidates in the last election was an example of this phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

The blogger Half Sigma is a particularly egregious example of this phenomenon (actually his filtering has more to do with elite school credentials.) In 2008 he estimated Obama's IQ at 150 and Sarah Palin's at 103.

Now, if Barack Obama has an IQ of 150 then surely his academic output should have reflected this - top notch law review articles, e.g. And yet this lack of output commensurate with such brilliance leaves credential-worshippers such as HS undismayed.


David Friedman said...

"Now, if Barack Obama has an IQ of 150 then surely his academic output should have reflected this"

Only if he wanted to be an academic. As best I can tell, his time at the University of Chicago law school was spent building the foundation for a political career--with striking success.

I was told by one of his ex-colleagues there that Obama was unwilling to engage intellectually with the other members of that (extraordinarily talented) faculty. I wondered if perhaps he was afraid of saying something that would come back to bite him in his later political career.

I wouldn't be surprised if Obama's IQ was as high as 150. I would be surprised if Palin's was as low as 103.

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

No true genius can get elected. The polity only wants someone slightly more intelligent than they, and that's what they get.

One reason might be that the exceedingly intelligent just can't communicate in the generalities and metaphors that most people use to understand politics (e.g., the average voter thinks generally that Medicare is, or is not, a crushing problem and will vote for the guy who holds the same general opinion, not the guy who can accurately recite the date Medicare goes busts, the exact percentage of the budget, the pharma donut, etc. This exercise repeats on every issue.)

Obama promised balanced budgets, mature stewardship, and end to the lawless overweening executive, federalism in the drug war, and all sorts of general goodness while no one knew what the hell McCain was promising.

js290 said...

The most average candidate rises to the top of popular elections. The intelligence level of Obama and Palin are probably about the same.

Jehu said...

Obama's probably in the 125-130 range. More and he certainly would've been a national merit scholar which would've been a matter of public record. That's on the high side of typical politicians, who tend to be from around 115 to 130 or so. He's not as smart as Clinton or Nixon by any stretch. Palin is probably around 115, which is on the low end for politicians. 150 and 103 strike me as gross over and underestimates. GW Bush and Kerry were both in the 120-125 range, according to their military records. But whose side you're on is way more important in a politician than how smart you are.

Andrew said...

Palin probably has a 170 IQ. Underneath that exterior is a brilliant mind. Just because everything that comes out of her mouth and bottom is utterly moronic does not make her stupid!

TonyFernandez said...

Politicians are crooks, not intellectuals. Let's never forget that.