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Science proves Sarah Palin is stupid or evil (but which..?)

February 28, 2012

Sarah Palin: Corrupt politician, boon to the cosmetics industry, reality-TV star, alleged adulterer and cocaine-user, jaw-dropping ignoramus regarding matters of historical record or just actively anti-Semitic… she is all this and more. A headline-writer’s dream and cash-cow rolled into one. And now science has proved she’s either stupid or dangerous… or both.

During the 2010 mid-term elections in the US, Mrs. Palin published a map of the United States with the home districts of Democrats who had voted in favour of Obama’s progessive health-care bill targetted with crosshairs. The text on one version read, disturbingly, “we’ve diagnosed the problem… help us prescribe the solution.” Was this an attempt at humour or was it just shockingly stupid? I guess we’ll never know, but it all backfired terribly for Palin when one of the members of Congress “targetted” by Palin’s map was promptly shot. It isn’t obvious to anybody living outside of the US, where socialised medicine is so vigorously defended exactly how an attempt to extend medical care to an extra 32 million Americans might provoke the venom of Republicans, libertarians and Fox News anchors. It is, however, perfectly understandable that Palin’s proposed “solution” might be misinterpreted by a mentally unstable, anti-abortion, sexist, conspiracy theorist.

So what does science have to say to all this gun-crazy nutjobbery? Having spent three years in Montreal myself at the time of the Dawson College shootings, I have always thought that the North American media’s handling of these events is a little, um… insensitive. As an North American TV viewer you are constantly exposed to graphics like this:

Gun and cross-hairs graphic from Chicago News Report

Even news channels who were critical of Palin’s map shennanegins are guilty of the over-use of violent imagery. So, is this a problem? Opinion is still very much divided almost a century after the invention of television, but a recent study from the Netherlands and Germany has looked at exactly this issue. The study created a fictional scenario involving an epidemic of foxes across the Netherlands. Having diagnosed the problem, researchers asked subjects to prescribe the solution by indicating to what extent they would agree with two different proposals: a) a cull of fox numbers by shooting, or b) capture and relocation of the offending canines.

Here comes the experimental manipulation. The subjects were given a map of the Netherlands showing the “problem areas” indicated by either crosshairs a la Palin, or more neutral circles. That’s it. That’s the whole experiment. Amazingly, this small manipulation had a huge effect. 26% of the subjects shown the neutral map with circles favoured shooting first and asking questions later, while 43% of the subjects shown the crosshairs map preferred to let God sort ’em out (U = 1356, z = 1.67, p = < .05).

Respondents were asked afterwards whether they were familiar with Palin's map and the subsequent controversy and, if they were, their results were excluded to control for the effects of previous media influence. The results show that the subtle use of visual imagery can have a profound effect on perfectly ordinary folks' opinions. A disturbing finding considering the relaxed attitude that broadcast news has developed with regards to showing violent images.

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