Numbers

by John Holbo on May 9, 2007

And the nominations for ‘best performance as a concern troll of the week’ go to – aw, hell with it. I clicked a link, taking me to this Michael Medved column. Don’t get me started. But then I did actually go to find the Rasmussen results he was citing. They are here:

Democrats in America are evenly divided on the question of whether George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in advance. Thirty-five percent (35%) of Democrats believe he did know, 39% say he did not know, and 26% are not sure.

Republicans reject that view and, by a 7-to-1 margin, say the President did not know in advance about the attacks. Among those not affiliated with either major party, 18% believe the President knew and 57% take the opposite view.

Back to Medved: he is wringing his hands about the Dem numbers. But it is actually quite astonishing that 1 in 8 Republicans are, by implication, supporters of an organization that they believe significantly sponsors terrorism, since it sponsors Bush. (Knowing in advance and doing nothing would be aiding and abetting, at best, I take it.) By contrast, presumably the 35% of Dems who think Bush was in the know at least disapprove of the 9/11 attacks?

The meta point here is that I never post about numbers stuff because I have no expertise. It seems to me it is always the case that at least 20% of respondents have very strange views, or must have failed to understand the question, or – perhaps most likely of all – were taking the occasion of being asked the question to vent angrily.

What do you make of these poll numbers?

UPDATE: It seems like a significant problem with the question that ‘incompetently failed to act on warnings about the possibility of’ could be construed as ‘knew about in advance’.

{ 30 comments }

1

ken 05.09.07 at 12:53 pm

So was the question:
– “Did Bush Know About the 9/11 Attacks in Advance?” or
– “Did Bush incompetently fail to act on warnings about the possibility of the 9/11 Attacks in Advance?”

It’s clear neither from the blog post nor its update. And it makes a very very big difference.

If the question was phrased as “know about”, then the thrust of Medved’s point is valid, and there are a lot of democratic loonies out there.

If the question was phrased as “failed to act on warnings”, then Medved can be placed comfortably in his normal ‘full of it’ zone.

2

trundle 05.09.07 at 1:02 pm

Well, it seems like the problem probably rests on the not-so-fine distinction between “knew a plane was going to hit the tower on September 11th at 8:46 am” and “read a memo that indicated Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike inside the United States.”

I followed your link, but it didn’t seem to offer an exact wording of the question asked, though admittedly I may be overlooking it (it’s 3am here).

3

abb1 05.09.07 at 1:08 pm

Certainly in this case ‘knew’ as ‘ignored the warnings’ (not a particularly controversial view) seems to be a much more reasonable interpretation than Medved’s ‘collaborated’/’participated’.

4

Lester Hunt 05.09.07 at 1:31 pm

Considering the enormous number of people who believe some other irrational conspiracy theory, I would not rule out in advance the possibility that this 35% (or a depressingly large portion of them) mean exactly what they are saying.

5

MichaelB 05.09.07 at 1:39 pm

I agree with Lester Hunt. Lots of people believe lots of crazy things. I have been wondering recently if we are just more aware of it then we were in the past. With the internet, any crackpot can post his thoughts online, and can communicate more easily with other crackpots. As a result, they get more vocal and we are suddenly aware of what they are thinking, when in the past it could/would be mostly ignored.

6

joseph hill 05.09.07 at 1:49 pm

For me the question is this: if you believe that there was some sort of conspiracy, what then do you plan to do about it? Continue to live where you live, doing what you do, and just being a bit angry that at the highest levels people are doing bad things?

7

Michael Mouse 05.09.07 at 2:03 pm

I do surveys for a living. (Ok, part of my living.) And I’d say there’s always a section of any sample that is comprised entirely of incomprehensible bozos. In terms of their responses, at least.

The magnitude of the bozo effect varies – IME it’s typically 5%. If you work hard at your survey design and pick a smart sample who have time to reflect and consider their responses you can get it down as low as 1%. If you mess that stuff up it’ll be more like 25%.

(I note without further comment that these are of the same magnitude as electoral margins.)

If you deal with a random drive-by Internet sample you might be lucky to have 5% of your data meaningful. And – on the Wanamaker principle – you will struggle to find out which 5%.

8

Michael Mouse 05.09.07 at 2:07 pm

@joseph hill

To paraphrase Jack Handey, it’s easy to continue to live where you live, doing what you do, and just being a bit angry that at the highest levels people are doing bad things. And I guess that’s what I like about it. It’s easy. Just sitting there, rocking back and forth, feeling mildly peeved at the Powers That Be.

9

Jon H 05.09.07 at 2:14 pm

I personally think Bush et al, knew something was going to happen at some point in 2001, and they allowed it to happen so they could take advantage of it, it’s just that it turned out to be *far* worse than they expected.

That’d pretty much fit with other blunders they’ve made.

10

Jon H 05.09.07 at 2:16 pm

Oh, and I’m neither a lefty moonbat, nor susceptible to loony conspiracy theories.

11

paperwight 05.09.07 at 2:36 pm

I am on the call list for at least one polling company, usually on municipal matters where I live, and I can say that at least a quarter of the questions are phrased so badly that I can’t really answer them. And of course the people asking the questions are generally the same sort of people who do telemarketing anywhere, and can’t really clarify the questions (for that matter, I assume that they’re not permitted to, since that would skew the survey).

If I were asked the question “Did Bush know about the 9/11 attacks before they happened?” I would probably say no, but given what he *did* know, I can see where that might not always be the response, even among the non-tinfoil-hat crowd.

A typical Dem responder’s answer could easily be “Well, sure he did! Remember ‘Bin Laden determined to strike inside United States’? And ‘OK, you’ve covered your ass now’? How could he not know? And conversely, the Republican partisanship that led Republicans to forgive those facts could lead to “of course not!”

Crappy survey design, I suspect.

12

J Thomas 05.09.07 at 3:09 pm

The Rasmussen survey published pretty much what you quoted, and hid the rest of their information behind a subscription firewall. I haven’t noticed anybody who has paid for the info reporting more about it.

To me the awful thing here was the number of people who think they know what happened.

We’ve established by now that the Bush administration wouldn’t be above staging something like 9/11. But that doesn’t mean they did it or even knew about it. There’s also no reason to think they’d be competent to find out about it if it was happening independent of them.

Similarly, we have absolutely no reason to think they didn’t know all the details ahead of time, except for the charitable belief that if they had known they would have done something about it. But would they think they’d do better to get the glory of stopping the attack, or they’d do better to let it happen? Which way will a cat jump? There’s simply no basis to guess what they’d decide.

Only 26% of democrats and 25% of independents gave the only sane answer, that they weren’t sure.

The public info didn’t say how many republicans weren’t sure. It said what percent of democrats said yes no don’t-know, and what percent of independents, and it gave a ratio for republicans. So if you knew what percent of republicans and independents there were in the whole sample you could get a close guess at the republicans. But I very much doubt it was much over 25%.

Around 3/4 of the population is making stupid choices based on essentially no information. It’s pathetic.

13

MQ 05.09.07 at 6:00 pm

The guy had a memo on his desk a month before the attack warning about just such an event, the FBI had all kinds of info about terrorists in flight schools at the time…yeah, it seems perfectly legit to say he “knew” by some definition of that word. Bad question.

On the other hand, I don’t buy that this administration would ever “stage” such a thing. If they would stage that, why not plant WMDs in Iraq? But perhaps they were less diligent in pursuing terrorism because they had other foreign policy priorities and did not see this as as much of a negative as they should have.

14

nick s 05.09.07 at 7:12 pm

I lean towards jon h @9, in what might be called the ‘soft LIHOP’ position (number 4 on this list) that is, that Bush & co. knew something was going to happen in mid/late 2001, underestimating the outcome, and planned on dealing with the consequences.

15

McGarnigle 05.09.07 at 8:30 pm

How does the 18% of Republicans compare with the very high percentage who believe Saddam was behind 9/11? Can we conclude that some GOPers think that Dubya and Saddam were in on it together?

16

J Thomas 05.09.07 at 10:11 pm

That was 18% of independents. They didn’t say about republicans except it was 7:1. So that’s 1/8 yes and 7/8 no not counting the ones who don’t know. A maximum of 12.5% yes. Or it could possibly have been 1% yes and 7% no and 92% don’t know, which is very very unlikely.

17

snuh 05.09.07 at 11:45 pm

remember the new york post’s front page c2002, “BUSH KNEW”? the accompanying story was about the “bin laden determined to strike” memo.

incidentally, didn’t michael medved used to be a movie reviewer for the post?

18

John Quiggin 05.10.07 at 12:08 am

Why not plant WMDs in Iraq?

I think they were deceived by their own propaganda efforts into thinking that things like the trailers would pan out. By the time it was obvious that this wouldn’t happen, it was too late.

The same reasoning leads me to favor the “incompetently failed to act on warnings” interpretation with a dash of “in any case, if it happens it won’t be politically bad for us, so let’s focus on the concerns of the base (drugs, immigration etc)”.

19

abb1 05.10.07 at 7:01 am

‘Why didn’t they plant WMDs’ is still a mystery to me. I don’t buy the “too late” explanation; if they found a barrel of anthrax there today, it would still be a tremendous boost for them. And since it would be “good for the nation”, they certainly wouldn’t have any aversion to doing it. The only explanation I see is that they are incompetent losers.

20

J Thomas 05.10.07 at 7:31 am

Maybe the people they sent into iraq to look for WMDs were actually honorable and wouldn’t have gone along with a fake.

It would have looked odd if they had died in some freak accident and then their replacements found the WMDs that couldn’t be examined too closely.

And it doesn’t matter all that much any more. Finding WMDs would have implied Bush was right in the first place to invade, unless the WMDs weren’t that impressive. But it wouldn’t be any help at all for the argument we should stay.

21

Richard 05.10.07 at 7:49 am

This willingness among most Democrats to entertain the idea that 9/11 represented a Bush-sanctioned “inside job” demonstrates the alarming extent to which conspiracy theorists, paranoids and America-hating extremists have taken over one of our major political parties.
Yes, but which one? I’m with John Holbo: the 1 in 8 Republicans who allegedly believe Bush to have been complicit in the attacks and continue to be disciplined party members sound worrying (if, in fact, they exist).

meanwhile; among independents… more than 3-to-1 (57% to 18%) decisively rejects the idea that Bush knew about the devastating attacks before they occurred.

While the missing 25% entertain the idea, giving us 43% who can’t confidently say Bush didn’t know? Where does this put the much-loved “mainstream?”

if you believe that there was some sort of conspiracy, what then do you plan to do about it? Continue to live where you live, doing what you do, and just being a bit angry that at the highest levels people are doing bad things?

That seems to have been the usual human response, yes. The alternative – gathering like-minded people together in large numbers and engaging in collective resistance -is incredibly rare in history. The slightly easier alternative – gathering small numbers of like-minded people together and engaging in localised, high profile acts, hoping for some attention to be paid to your outrage – seems to be rather frowned upon right now.

Why didn’t they plant WMDs
Weird, isn’t it? In some sense, I think the other big lies have all been quite physically close to the White House; they’ve involved a small coterie of people… and even those have proved impossible to control. Could it be that they simply haven’t had the reach to put someone on the ground in Iraq with WMDs in hand (ie there’s nobody they trust out there), or is it that that kind of evidence-planting crosses some boundary we can’t see – that it’s somehow beyond merely messing with political opponents and becomes some interference in The Truth?

22

Richard 05.10.07 at 7:50 am

sorry about the strikethrough above: I can’t think how it happened.

23

abb1 05.10.07 at 8:08 am

‘Honorable’ is in the eye of the beholder; for many people ‘honorable’ means doing “what’s good for the nation”, whatever it may be. See Oliver North and his many apologists, for example. In fact, many Iran-Contra actors are a part of this administration, including the current secretary of defense.

And they didn’t need people they sent into Iraq to look for WMDs to plant WMDs. They could send a separate group.

24

Disinterested Observer 05.10.07 at 9:55 am

I’d never underestimate the power of ignorance
http://www.harpers.org/archive/2005/08/0080695

25

J Thomas 05.10.07 at 12:14 pm

abb1, I believe for a convincing WMD you need the guys who find it to be in on it.

Otherwise it takes more than a barrel of anthrax. It needs to be in an iraqi barrel. You need local people not to say the barrel got brought in by helicopter yesterday. You’re a lot better off if it wasn’t from the same batch that went through the US mail, which had already been reported to come from a US lab. Etc.

Early in the occupation the CIA went into a particular iraqi government building with an israeli team. They went unhesitatingly to a particular location where a lot of documents were underwater, and found some dry pages that said just what they wanted. The way I remember it that story didn’t get a lot of traction.

Oh well. I remember a story about one of the early satellites. They wanted the solar power arrays to open out, and they needed a device to keep them from opening too hard. So they put an engineering team on that. Their first models didn’t work reliably, the third model was too heavy, the fourth one was filled with a lubricant that would make a giant mess if it ever opened, and they were running out of time. Then somebody asked what would happen if they didn’t have a brake at all. They decided it didn’t matter. They put a little bumper on the thing the array would hit, and let it go at that.

Maybe these guys looked at the possible downside of a fake that got caught, and compared it to the downside of not finding any WMDs after all, and decided they didn’t need it.

26

abb1 05.10.07 at 1:51 pm

Yeah, fair enough. Indeed, that David Kay guy did look like an old-fashioned thorough and square military fella.

27

Martin Bento 05.10.07 at 7:18 pm

The reason the Bush Admin did not plant WMDs is because they were banking on a successful war, and, if they had gotten it, the WMD lies would not matter. The Clinton Admin stated that 100,000, even 500,000 Kosovo’s Albanians were feared dead. They knew damn well the Serbs did have the capability to kill that many that quickly. But the war was successful, so the lies didn’t matter. All the blubbering about babies in incubators under Bush I turned out to be deliberate fraud. Has Bush I paid a price for this, even in hindsight? The war was successful, so the lies didn’t matter. The debate over Grenada was “settled” when a student got off the plane and kissed the American soil, providing visual confirmation of Reagan’s otherwise very weak claim that American students were in danger, the justification for the war. Later, it came out that the student was simply paid to do this. Any cost to Reagan, currently basking in near-sainthood, over this? The war was successful, so the lies didn’t matter. This is the rule of American politics: the President can lie or manipulate the country into supporting a war of choice and pay no political cost, provided the war is seen as successful. Since Vietnam was not seen as successful, Johnson was the last President to pay a cost.

Is Bush going to stoop to actually forging WMD evidence when his father was not forced to actually bash some Kuwaiti babies to substantiate charges of genocide? Bush’s agenda has been largely to, putting it extremely mildly, enlarge Presidential prerogatives. To deny himself the right to expect lies he used to bring the country to war to be ignored later would be actually shrinking his prerogatives from what all three of his immediate predecessors had enjoyed. A great deal can be accomplished based on Americans’ emotional need to believe in their government.

John Q., I don’t see a basis for seeing it more reasonable to suppose that the Bush admin would deliberately disregard vague rather than specific foreknowledge, recognizing that those are both relative terms in this context. If major Bush admin figures knew something like 9/11, even if not quite that big, was coming, and decided to let it go, how could they be sure of their personal safety? If they knew am attack was coming on September 11, they knew Bush would be in Florida, for example. Otherwise, how could they know Bush or Cheney would be out of the line of fire? If they had vague knowledge, would they not try to get more specific information, just in their own interest? Since the government evidently had some of the hijackers under surveillance, this should have been doable. Evidently, they knew jets were involved, as Ashcroft announced a few months earlier that he had information that it was not safe to fly commercially and would no longer be doing so. The fact that he did renege a couple of times is sometimes cited as evidence that he did not have much real foreknowledge, but it actually suggests the opposite, If his information was not vague, but fairly specific, he would be able to determine with a high level of confidence that some flights – Dallas to Phoenix, say – were safe and others not. If his knowledge were highly vague, he could not. So his actual behavior suggests somewhat detailed information.

28

Martin Bento 05.11.07 at 6:04 am

I wrote:

“They knew damn well the Serbs did have the capability to kill that many that quickly. “

Meant to say:

“They knew damn well the Serbs did not have the capability to kill that many that quickly. “

of course

29

Bulworth 05.11.07 at 3:14 pm

“Well, it seems like the problem probably rests on the not-so-fine distinction between “knew a plane was going to hit the tower on September 11th at 8:46 am” and “read a memo that indicated Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike inside the United States.” “

Yeah, what Trundle said.

30

duus 05.14.07 at 7:48 pm

mq @13 said:

The guy had a memo on his desk a month before the attack warning about just such an event, the FBI had all kinds of info about terrorists in flight schools at the time…yeah, it seems perfectly legit to say he “knew” by some definition of that word.

Trundle and bulworth, also.

I agree. My answer is “yes, he knew,” in that sense. Clearly “know” is very muddy. What if he got an email from bin Laden with the plan, but having excluded the date, would GWB have “known” or “not known”? What if this fictional email from OBL said “sometime in early/mid September.” What if the email said the date and time, but not the method? Would we say GWB “knew” then?

I think getting a memo that says this guy is going to attack you means you know he he’s going to attack you. In advance, even.

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