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International Variation in Political Ignorance about the Perpetrators of the 9/11 Attacks:

Last year, I blogged about a series of Pew surveys that showed that 28% of American Muslims, and large majorities in many Muslim populations around the world deny that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by Arab terrorists. World Public Opinion.org has an interesting new survey documenting opinion about the identity of the perpetrators of 9/11 in 17 countries around the world. On average, 46% of the WPO respondents correctly identify al Qaeda as the perpetrators, while 15% blame the United States government, 7% Israel, 7% cite other possible perpetrators, and 25% say they don't know who did it. The WPO results are not directly comparable to the earlier Pew surveys because the former are based on "open-ended" questions where respondents volunteer their own answers, while the Pew surveys forced respondents to pick from a list of predetermined options in a multiple choice format.

The WPO survey shows wide variation between countries. Predictably, respondents in the Arab world are much more likely to blame either the US government or Israel than those in other countries. This is true of 55% of Egyptians, 48% of Jordanians, and 46% of Palestinians. But even in Western Europe, 23% of Germans claimed that the US government perpetrated the attack.

Ignorance about the origins of 9/11 is partly caused by general "rational ignorance," arising from the fact that most ordinary citizens have little incentive to become informed about politics. But as I argued in last year's post on Muslim opinion, it is also partly the result of "rational irrationality," biased evaluation of the information you do have. Many studies show that people tend to reject political information that goes against their preexisting biases, while overvaluing data that supports them. Thus, people who tend to be hostile to the US and/or Israel or sympathetic to radical Islamism are more likely to deny that Al Qaeda perpetrated the attacks and instead point the finger at the US or its allies. That helps explain why Arab respondents are so much more likely to deny Al Qaeda's guilt than those elsewhere in the world. I discuss the logic of rational ignorance and irrationality in this article, among others.

The "rational irrationality" explanation of 9/11 ignorance is buttressed by the WPO study's striking finding that "those with greater education are only slightly more likely to attribute 9/11 to al Qaeda." As a general rule, political knowledge is highly correlated with education because educated people are more likely to be interested in politics and follow current events. In this case, however, the normal correlation between education and knowledge may be undermined by the fact that the educated are also more likely to have been exposed to various conspiracy theories blaming the US and Israel which (for some respondents) fit in with their preexisting biases. As I explained in January, widespread belief in crackpot conspiracy theories is yet another cost of political ignorance and irrationality.

Interestingly, the countries with the highest percentages of respondents who accurately identified al Qaeda as the perpetrators of 9/11 are two poor African nations with very low average education levels: Kenya (77%) and Nigeria (71%). The Kenyans and Nigerians did significantly better than respondents from many higher-income nations, including Germany (64%), Britain (57%), and Italy (56%). Even Nigerian Muslims (64%) outperformed all the high-income countries in the study other than Germany; presumably, Nigerian Muslims are on average less anti-American than those in the Middle East and Western Europe, and therefore less likely to reject evidence of Al Qaeda's responsibility due to anti-American bias. Similarly, they may also be less anti-American than many left-wing and radical right-wing nationalist Europeans (groups who are disproportionately represented among 9/11 deniers in Western Europe). This result further reinforces the view that ignorance about the perpetrators of 9/11 is more the result of irrationality than lack of exposure to information.

Finally, it should be emphasized that simple rational ignorance should not be entirely discounted as a contributing factor driving the WPO survey results. Anti-American and anti-Israeli bias surely explain a lot. But even among respondents who have a generally positive view of the US role in the world, only 59% correctly identified al Qaeda as the perpetrators of 9/11 (compared to 40% among those with a negative view).

NOTE: The way the WPO survey results are reported in the link above slightly overstates ignorance about the perpetrators of 9/11 by classifying respondents who identified the perpetrators as "Arabs" or "Saudis" as having given an answer of "other." All of the 9/11 hijackers were Arabs and 15 of 19 were Saudis. The PDF version of results (available by clicking "Questionnaire/Methodology (PDF)" on the WPO website) shows that, in most countries, no more than 3-5% of respondents gave these types of responses which, although they didn't mention the term "Al Qaeda" should probably be considered accurate.

UPDATE: I just realized that I accidentally failed to include a link to the WPO website reporting the results in the first paragraph of this post. That mistake has now been corrected. Sorry for the annoying error.

UPDATE #2: As several commenters point out, the high correct response rate in Kenya may be due in part to the fact that Kenya was the victim of a 1998 Al Qaeda attack targeting the US embassy in that country. The terrorists ended up killing many more Kenyans than Americans. No doubt, many Kenyans remember this and are therefore disinclined to ignore evidence showing that Al Qaeda was responsible for atrocities elsewhere.

Jimmy S.:
An interesting hypothetical--

If Barack Obama becomes president and he announces after a search of the White House files that the 9/11 attacks were *not* a government plot and that it really was caused by Islamic extremists--what will happen to all those Obama-loving conspiracy-believing Europeans and Arabs? Will their heads explode or something?
9.16.2008 6:29pm
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
The ignorance wasn't rational when it was Americans falsely believing Iraq did it.
9.16.2008 6:30pm
Observer:
What about Israelis, I would have thought 95%+ would get the right answer?
9.16.2008 6:42pm
JerryT (mail):
I'm surprised that with all that's going on, ranging from a market meltdown to the political races, that you'd blog something like this. Sorry, I get paid for being a critic. ;)
9.16.2008 6:44pm
CB55 (mail):
When did the Bush Admin stop bombing Iraq for 9/11 and how many public officials and voters still believe he is doing the right thing?
9.16.2008 6:45pm
Waldensian (mail):
A classic video dealing with this very topic.
9.16.2008 6:45pm
Hoosier:
America is rather popular with Sub-Saharan Africans. We might want to look at our foreign policy options in that region in the coming years.

My suggestion: Spearhead the move of UN HQ out of NYC and to Dakar. Great location for trans-Atlantic travel. A great city. Cheaper than NYC by a long way. And who could (publicly) object?

What suprprised me most was that only 7% blame Israel for 9/11. I would have thought the number a lot higher. The Joo-owned media is clearly controlling the message.
9.16.2008 6:45pm
Hutz:
I've never understood why denying Al Qaeda's role in 9/11 is necessarily consistent with an anti-American bias. I would expect those who wish to see harm come to America and Americans to delight in the narrative of a small band of committed martyrs inflicting successfully inflicting such harm. Denying Al Qaeda's role seems more consistent with the view that America is so strong that only it would be capable of pulling off 9/11.
9.16.2008 6:46pm
Adam J:
Hutz- it might make us seem strong, but anyone who holds such a view also would believe the government so evil that it kills its own citizens for political profit... which further justifies their hatred of the US.
9.16.2008 6:55pm
CB55 (mail):
A woman comes home and finds her husband in bed with another woman and says,"Honey, believe me, doubt her and I'm sure you are not gonna believe your own eyes".
9.16.2008 6:58pm
M (mail):
High correct answer rates in Kenya could be partly due to al Qaeda having bombed the US embassy there some years ago. That sort of thing probably make it more strongly placed in their minds. (I'm not sure if this helps explain Nigeria, though.)
9.16.2008 7:04pm
wfjag:
And why is wide-spread belief in this conspiracy theory surprising? 45 years after the JFK assassination, there are still many widely held conspiracy theories that are popular. See "The Kennedy Assassination" by John McAdams, http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/home.htm

McAdams has the best short summary of Oliver Stone's movie JFK, that I've read:


We expect Hollywood movies to take some liberties with the historical record. But what do we think when Hollywood turns history on its head? Oliver Stone wants to overturn the verdict in the Clay Shaw trial. The jury found that District Attorney Jim Garrison had no case — so Stone invents a case on celluloid. Just how honest was Oliver Stone, Shaw's Hollywood prosecutor?

Yet, how many people have seen that movie and believe it?

The 9/11 Truthers have put out several DVDs. "Seeing is believing."

But, I think more important than the subject of this opinion poll, when do you think the aliens will being Elvis back?
9.16.2008 7:06pm
tommears (mail):
It would be interesting to see if there were a way to measure whether people are willfully giving the "wrong" answer. I just wonder if people are not saying the Israel or the US did it just to poke a stick in our eyes.

I just have a picture of this Palestinian family setting down at dinner when the telemarketer calls and says I represent "ABC American Polling, who do you think did 911". The Mrs. says "just tell them it was the Israelis; your shawarma is getting cold".
9.16.2008 7:17pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
I know Americans (with PhDs) who have studied the question and conclude that George Bush and the CIA are responsible for the collapse of the WTC Twin Towers and Building 7. They did it as part of a power grab, and so they could topple the Taliban. Why would they want to topple the Taliban? Easy. Bush and the CIA wanted to bring back poppy farming because they get a cut of the international drug trade. I'm not making this up.

Their main evidence is building 7 which they say must have been brought down by demolition charges because it fell into its footprint. When I ask how it could not fall into its footprint because there are virtually no horizontal forces, I get a blank stare.

Even an experienced and productive scientist can go nuts.
9.16.2008 7:25pm
Sarcastro (www):
Vince Foster!
9.16.2008 7:29pm
Malvolio:
Sarah Palin!
9.16.2008 7:43pm
Sarcastro (www):
Chelsea Clinton!
9.16.2008 7:46pm
fennel:
It's fascinating to me that Kenya came in first place in correctly identifying the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. I was in Kenya on 9/11/01 and I recall quite vividly that the 9/11 attacks caused a very visceral reaction among ordinary Kenyans who lived through the bombing of the American Embassy in Nairobi in 1998--an attack that killed over 200 Kenyan citizens.

I don't want to read too much into the data Ilya cites, but I'm guessing that the reality of living through al Qaida attacks both before and after 9/11 makes it much more difficult for a group of people to buy into an absurd myth about the perpetrators of the attack.

Then again, I recall 40% of Americans polled in 2003 thinking Saddam Hussein orchestrated the 9/11 attacks, so I could be wrong...
9.16.2008 7:55pm
NickM (mail) (www):
I wonder how many people who don't believe al Qaeda was behind 9/11 named their kids Osama.

Nick
9.16.2008 7:56pm
CB55 (mail):
Karl Rogue
9.16.2008 7:56pm
Yankev (mail):

When did the Bush Admin stop bombing Iraq for 9/11 and how many public officials and voters still believe he is doing the right thing?
Is this another way of asking whether you are still beating your spouse, same sex partner or significant other?
9.16.2008 8:18pm
trad and anon:
I'm surprised it's as high as 46%. How many Americans could correctly identify the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in other countries?
9.16.2008 8:25pm
Pat C (mail):
My own sarcastic response to "America did it" is how could anyone think the Bush administration could have pulled off 9/11 ? If they had tried they would have screwed it up.
9.16.2008 8:31pm
CB55 (mail):
Yankev:

It is the case that the Bush Admin continued and continues to link 9/11 with Iraq long after the invasion of Iraq and despite the many rebuttals and other findings. It is the case that many Americans still believe the same notion.
9.16.2008 8:37pm
EricH (mail):
It is the case that the Bush Admin continued and continues to link 9/11 with Iraq long after the invasion of Iraq and despite the many rebuttals and other findings.

Continues? It is the case?

Studies indicate that 85% of the people who visit the Volokh Conspiracy think you just make things up.

The number is rising.

Okay, like you, I just make things up.
9.16.2008 8:44pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
I have met people who, when asked a question like "Who was responnsible for 9-11?", answer with a kind of self-righteous certitude that Bush did it. It's a strange kind of self-presentation. It makes me wonder if they really think so or don't but think they need to make some kind of point. I can imagine them answering an anonymous pollster's phone call.
9.16.2008 10:05pm
CB55 (mail):
EricH:

There is no necessary connection between my position and your rebuttal. Your opinion has nothing to do with the facts
9.16.2008 10:14pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
This comment string is about 10% under quota for irrelevant remarks about Geo. Bush and/or current presidential candidates.
9.16.2008 10:47pm
Bill McGonigle (www):
Pat C: the answer to whether George Bush is a blundering fool or an evil mastermind has to do with whether Dick Cheney or Karl Rove is pulling his strings.
9.16.2008 10:50pm
Smokey:
The average American may not believe this 9-11 horse hockey, but keep in mind that half the population is below average.


Oh, and CB55 stated, for no worthwhile reason: "Karl Rogue"

CB55 must believe this site has a troll deficit, so he's here to help out.
9.16.2008 11:30pm
LM (mail):
You think Kenyans aren't in on Obama's secret Muslim plan to fool us into thinking he's an American who did well on his LSAT's so we can elect him and establish the new Caliphate?

C'mon. By February everyone in Dakar will be driving a Coupe de Ville.
9.16.2008 11:46pm
LM (mail):

Many studies show that people tend to reject political information that goes against their preexisting biases, while overvaluing data that supports them.

If that's true, why don't you see any evidence of it on these comment threads?
9.16.2008 11:48pm
Smokey:
Maybe this was just taken at Halloween: clicky
9.16.2008 11:51pm
LM (mail):
Smokey,

That's not even Obama in that picture. It's one of the army of Obama clones they're growing in Kenya right now to come over here and run the Obama Caliphate. Starting January 20 we'll all have to pray 5 times a day, fist bump and play lots of basketball. Get ready.
9.17.2008 12:02am
Oren:
I've been working on my jump shot all year, you guys are screwed.
9.17.2008 12:39am
one of many:
LM,

that's it, I'm voting for McCain now. You can take my gun, you can take my money, but I will not stand for anyone who might try to interfere with my gods given right to eat bacon.
9.17.2008 12:42am
Smokey:
LM, you may be right. I understand that Obama's proposal to reduce black unemployment will require the expansion of the NBA to 200 teams.
9.17.2008 12:43am
Oren:

This comment string is about 10% under quota for irrelevant remarks about Geo. Bush and/or current presidential candidates.

What kind of man abbreviates George to Geo?
9.17.2008 12:52am
Dan Simon (mail) (www):
Ilya, why do you assume that this is "rational irrationality", as opposed to the old-fashioned, irrational kind?

Could it be that you're indulging in a bit of irrationality yourself, assuming without a shred of evidence that the world's conspiracy theorists are more rational in their personal affairs than in their political beliefs--just because if they weren't, then your own irrational devotion to libertarianism would be revealed as foolish?
9.17.2008 12:59am
Brian G (mail) (www):
This survey tells me nothing about 9/11. However, it does give me an idea of how many dopes there truly are in the world.
9.17.2008 1:40am
pwedza (mail):
Ilya, I have a friend - American and recent law grad who is currently answering phones for the McCain campaign while waiting to start his job in BIG Law - who is convinced that the American Govt. was involved.

Just saying..

In any case, do you not think that some of these people who hypothesize that the USG was involved may be a little influenced by the way the Bush Admin. has handled the 'War on Terror' - i.e. sending the boys to Iraq to get a firm hand on the region and all that entails?

Maybe the American public will soon forget the lies that led us to Iraq - but I doubt that much of the rest of the world will.
9.17.2008 2:02am
CB55 (mail):
Smokey:

Us trolls like to remind the little people just what Mr Rogue is, a thief.
9.17.2008 3:10am
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Neither President Bush nor any member of his administration has ever claimed Iraq was responsible for 9-11. On the contrary, Bush has explicitly denied that there is any evidence of that - as at
this press conference in 2003.
Note the mention of Rumsfeld and Rice as also denying it.

On the other hand, Osama bin Laden explicitly claimed Al-Qaeda responsibility for 9-11, citing the collapse of the towers as evidence of Allah's favor. There are literally thousands of Islamist web sites celebrating the success of 9-11 and venerating the hijackers as heroes.
9.17.2008 3:55am
one of many:
Rich

Not entirely true, Dick Cheney did state that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11 although he corrected himself about 5 seconds later. That's enough for some people to claim as an absolute fact that the Bush Administration has stated Iraq was behind 9/11.
9.17.2008 5:25am
LM (mail):
Smokey:

LM, you may be right. I understand that Obama's proposal to reduce black unemployment will require the expansion of the NBA to 200 teams.

Yeah, but the real show will be the WNBA, when they're all playing in full burkas.
9.17.2008 8:29am
Moneyrunner43 (www):
one of many,

And you remember that Obama recently referred to his Muslim faith, until corrected by Stephanopolus. Proof positive that he's a secret Muslim.

Just sayin...
9.17.2008 9:24am
JohnKT (mail):
I'm curious about the 23% of Germans who believe the US Government is responsible for 9/11. How many of that 23% were Muslim Germans?
9.17.2008 9:24am
Cleanthes (mail) (www):
The Black Hand terrorists did NOT kill Franz Ferdinand. Two WORLD WARS were fought in vain.
Heck, Franz Ferdinand is giving a show in Paris November 13!
9.17.2008 9:41am
Happyshooter:
In Michigan, a constitutional proposal came up for vote that banned the use of race in several areas, including school admissions, government benefits, and government contracts.

Many groups opposed it, including the NAACP, GM, Ford, and most Universities. All proclaimed it racist.

Voters exiting the polls stated they did not vote for the proposal, making it appear it would lose by 8 points. The proposal passed by 8 points, a 16 point swing.

Many feel the reason for the lies was the fear that employers would somehow find out, or the NAACP would find out and tell employers, that the voter was pro-proposal and thus racist, leading to a lack of employment.

If 16 percent of people will lie just in vague fear of somehow losing a job...how many people will lie in an area of the world where word getting out will mean death. Not just their death, but death of their families?

I would be a lying machine as well, if I lived in some muslim ruled crap hole and some stranger called me or stopped me on the street to ask that I thought. 'Sept 11th? I got to think it was the US. Yep, them, and the jews! The US, and jews, and coca cola! Death to the great satan! Go on the haj!'
9.17.2008 11:29am
Ken Arromdee:
I would be a lying machine as well, if I lived in some muslim ruled crap hole and some stranger called me or stopped me on the street to ask that I thought. 'Sept 11th? I got to think it was the US. Yep, them, and the jews! The US, and jews, and coca cola! Death to the great satan! Go on the haj!'

In some ways it doesn't matter. Instead of showing that a lot of people blame the West, it shows that a lot of people are forced to act as if the West is to blame. There may not be much practical difference between those two cases.
9.17.2008 2:33pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
Ken. Right about some places. How about here?
9.17.2008 3:08pm
Sagar (mail):
I wanted to see if they had polled Indians - being victims of Islamic terrorism themselves, they had to "know" it is AQ, but then there is also a large, reflexive anti-American component in the population.

They polled China but not India:(

On the other hand CB55 completely convinced me of his/her position with that powerful argument!
9.17.2008 3:14pm
Down from the Ivory Tower:
A great many viewers of Fox News still think that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11.
9.17.2008 8:10pm