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 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.