With all of the normative stuff going on here (this is a bad argument, no one should be convinced by it!) it's easy to forget that some very critical empirical questions remain: e.g., what effect have the battery of crappy arguments (say, in favor of torture) had? Thankfully, some effort has been made to gauge public opinion over time.
Many journalists and politicians believe that during the Bush administration, a majority of Americans supported torture if they were assured that it would prevent a terrorist attack. As Mark Danner wrote in the April 2009 New York Review of Books, “Polls tend to show that a majority of Americans are willing to support torture only when they are assured that it will ‘thwart a terrorist attack.’” This view was repeated frequently in both left- and right-leaning articles and blogs, as well as in European papers (Sharrock 2008; Judd 2008; Koppelman 2009; Liberation 2008). There was a consensus, in other words, that throughout the years of the Bush administration, public opinion surveys tended to show a pro-torture American majority.
But this view was a misperception. Using a new survey dataset on torture collected during the 2008 election, combined with a comprehensive archive of public opinion on torture, we show here that a majority of Americans were opposed to torture throughout the Bush presidency. This stance was true even when respondents were asked about an imminent terrorist attack, even when enhanced interrogation techniques were not called torture, and even when Americans were assured that torture would work to get crucial information. Opposition to torture remained stable and consistent during the entire Bush presidency. Even soldiers serving in Iraq opposed the use of torture in these conditions. As we show in the following, a public majority in favor of torture did not appear until, interestingly, six months into the Obama administration.
Why have so many politicians and journalists so badly misread the strong majorities opposed to torture? A recent survey we commissioned helps shine a light on this question. Psychologists describe a process of misperception—“false consensus”—whereby an individual mistakenly believes that his or her viewpoint represents the public majority. False consensus has a long legacy in social psychological research, but our survey is unique in that it examines, for the first time, how false consensus may have shaped the public debate over torture. Our survey shows that this false consensus pervades the opinions of those who support torture, leading them to significantly overestimate the proportion of the public that agrees with them. Those people opposed to torture, in contrast, have remarkably accurate perceptions of the rest of the public.
Indeed. It's easy to forget, with all of the "American people are this or that," that one can measure such things.