In other public opinion poll news, a recent Harris poll found that despite all evidence to the contrary, an increasing percentage of Americans believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to war. Bob talks to Harris Poll chairman Humphrey Taylor about how the truth sometimes merely gets in the way of what we know.
BOB GARFIELD: Some more on the unexpected persistence of certain ideas. A Harris Poll released last month found that despite all evidence to the contrary, an increasing percentage of Americans now believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to war. Humphrey Taylor is the chairman of the Harris Poll, and he joins us to discuss the way our brains filter facts. Humphrey, welcome to the show.
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: It's my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: In a previous poll, only 35 or 36 percent of Americans continued to believe the long-since disproved assertions that Saddam had been keeping caches of weapons of mass destruction. How do you account for the sudden resurgence in the embracing of the myth?
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: I think it's pretty clear that it went up as a result of and following the release of a report, I guess it was, by Senator Santorum and Representative Hoekstra which essentially played up the finding of, I think, about 500 shells with traces of chemical weapons.
BOB GARFIELD: Right. The Santorum smoking canisters were old stuff that the weapons inspectors say in no way constitutes the kind of threat that the CIA had been talking about leading up to the war.
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: Yes, but nevertheless, the effect created by the release of that story on many, many people, listeners, readers, etcetera, seems to have been, ah-hah, there were weapons of mass destruction after all, so I feel better about the fact that I supported the war back in 2003. Something else caught my eye in one of the blogs, which was that many Americans actually don't know the difference between Iraq and Iran, and all the news about nuclear weapons in Iran and Iran's nuclear program may have added to this, because that's been very much in the news. Again, this is speculation. We have no data on that.
BOB GARFIELD: Nonetheless, it seems striking that there should be such a large spike in the belief factor. Is there any demographic breakout of the respondents that itself would explain why so many people are re-embracing the WMDs idea?
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: We have a striking difference, first of all, between Republicans and Democrats -- 74 percent of Republicans but only 29 percent of Democrats actually believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. And this is part of a thing which many others have written and talked about, which is the increasing polarization in this country; and not only are the public polarized, they also tend to read and watch different media. You almost have two different nations.
BOB GARFIELD: There were a couple of other long-since discredited notions about Saddam's relationship, if any, to the events of September 11th that were also eyebrow raising.
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: Yes. In fact, we still had, in this most recent poll, 64 percent of the public, almost two-thirds, who said Saddam Hussein had strong links with al Qaeda. And in last year's survey, we also had almost half, 47 percent, who said Saddam Hussein helped to plan and support the hijackers, and several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. were Iraqis. That was 44 percent. So these are all really amazing figures, given what people believe to be the truth.
BOB GARFIELD: There has been, as far as I know, zero [LAUGHS] evidence and even zero discussion of the notion that Iraqis were aboard those planes, and yet 44 percent of Americans, according to your survey, believe that they were right in the thick of things. How do you account for that level of misinformation?
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: If you were strongly supportive of the war or are strongly supportive of the war, you want to believe theories which justify the invasion of Iraq, and therefore when presented with a statement like that, they tend to believe it. That is something that the psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Essentially, the heart trumps the mind. There's a kind of filtering process, and an assumption, by the way, that if the facts that you receive don't jive with your beliefs, then the facts must be wrong.
BOB GARFIELD: As a professional pollster, when you look at the discrepancy between what you know to be true and what the public believes, do you feel disheartened about the state of the body politic? And are you ever just fearful of just going to work that day to find out the latest thing that the public thinks that just simply isn't true?
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: Well, I assume that the public are human, which means that sometimes they're well informed and sometimes they're not. Sometimes they make good judgments. Sometimes they don't. So I'm not disheartened. I'm actually interested. I mean, this particular survey, when it came through, I felt it was important to publish it, even though I found it pretty amazing, and even though I thought they were probably wrong. Publishing and making that kind of information available to people, I think, enhances the quality of debate and discussion.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, Humphrey, thank you so much for joining us.
HUMPHREY TAYLOR: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Humphrey Taylor is chairman of the Harris Poll.
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