For Immediate Release: October 11, 2006
Contact: Marc Sapir, MD, MPH
Executive Director, Retro Poll
Retro Poll Report Shows Ignorance Linked to Opinion Patterns
Innovative Methodology Illuminates Widespread Misinformation
Berkeley, CA —Americans who scored poorly on factual questions about major news events tended to display markedly different opinions from the better-informed on opinion questions ranging from the Iraq war to the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the death penalty, results from a recently completed Retro Poll indicate.
Retro Poll’s method of asking both factual and opinion questions – and comparing the opinion responses of those demonstrating accurate and inaccurate comprehension – points to the grave danger such widespread ignorance poses for a powerful nation that may easily be led astray by false claims, said Dr. Marc Sapir, executive director of Retro Poll.
“What people think they know—if it is consistently wrong--can endanger our nation in a world environment of war, crisis and US dominance,” said Sapir, whose group surveys national random samples by phone. Because Retro Poll compares responses within the survey, it doesn’t require the large samples commonly used by major polls.
“We don’t claim that the opinion proportions we find tightly reflect the general public’s,” said Mickey Huff, another Retro Poll director. “In looking at comparisons within the group surveyed, we believe Retro Poll can provide more useful information about public opinion than the media-promoted groups like Gallup and Harris do by mirroring peoples’ misinformed opinions back to them.”
In a phone survey that ended October 5, fifty Bay Area college students contacted 151 Americans in 40 states, finding that, for example, only 53 of 151 (35%) knew there were no Iraqis among the 19 Al Qaeda members implicated in the 9/11 attack on the U.S. They also found that only half knew that Saddam Hussein had no ties to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden (23% said he had ties, 28% didn’t know). Only 44% knew the International Red Cross has accused the US of systematic torture at Guantanamo. Just 40% knew that the US has been engaging in “extraordinary rendition” of prisoners to countries that torture, and less than 15% knew that over 120 people on death row in the US have been released due to evidence they were innocent.
Retro Poll’s Sapir acknowledges he does not know how close the poll’s percentages are to the general public’s – a problem he says even larger sample sizes face, given the removal from consideration of the large majority of people who typically refuse to participate in any kind of poll -- but that is not the data Retro Poll seeks. Its focus instead addresses how opinions on war, torture, the death penalty, and other important issues vary in relation to the knowledge that poll respondents demonstrate on factual questions.
For instance, 86% of people who think Saddam and Al Qaeda worked together agreed that prisoners held at Guantanamo without trials must all be guilty simply for being picked up, while two thirds (67%) of those who knew the truth about Saddam and Al Qaeda reject blanket assumptions about prisoners’ guilt. Three quarters (75%) of those who have not heard about the “renditions” in which prisoners have been secretly transferred between nations say they think that all the prisoners at Guantanamo are guilty, compared to just 39% of those who did answer the rendition question accurately. Statistically such differences were highly unlikely to occur by chance (far less than 1%).
Moreover, 77.4% of those polled who were under the misperception that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden worked together oppose US military withdrawal from Iraq contrasted with 55.4% favoring immediate withdrawal among those who knew there is not evidence of such a relationship.
The skew is not only related to foreign policy. Although 76% of those who knew the facts about the nonexistent Iraq-Al Qaeda ties found the government’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina situation in New Orleans to be negligent, 58% of those misinformed on those links thought the government’s response to Katrina was reasonable. Likewise, 72% of those who knew about the Iraq-Al Qaeda deception favored a national health insurance program, compared with 43% of the misinformed.
“Some pundits will argue that these differences simply reflect core differences in ideology and allegiance. That may be somewhat true,” Sapir asserted. “But the important point is how strongly these opinion differences are linked to bad information in our surveys.” In the current survey 64% gave tv as their main source of news. Of these almost half mentioned Fox or CNN. 13% mentioned NBC or MSNBC.
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