Truth will out. Won’t it?

“Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be,” read a recent Onion headline. Like the best satire, this nasty little gem elicits a laugh, which is then promptly muffled by the queasy feeling of recognition. The last five decades of political science have definitively established that most modern-day Americans lack even a basic understanding of how their country works. In 1996, Princeton University’s Larry M. Bartels argued, “the political ignorance of the American voter is one of the best documented data in political science.”

This brief essay on the disconnect between voting and critical thinking was written by Joe Keohane for the Boston Globe. I found Joe’s piece thanks to a tweet from physicist Jeff Terry. The Keohane piece does a nice job of summarizing for the general audience what is well-known to public policy researchers.

On its own, this might not be a problem: People ignorant of the facts could simply choose not to vote. But instead, it appears that misinformed people often have some of the strongest political opinions. A striking recent example was a study done in the year 2000, led by James Kuklinski of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He led an influential experiment in which more than 1,000 Illinois residents were asked questions about welfare — the percentage of the federal budget spent on welfare, the number of people enrolled in the program, the percentage of enrollees who are black, and the average payout. More than half indicated that they were confident that their answers were correct — but in fact only 3 percent of the people got more than half of the questions right. Perhaps more disturbingly, the ones who were the most confident they were right were by and large the ones who knew the least about the topic. (Most of these participants expressed views that suggested a strong antiwelfare bias.)

Studies by other researchers have observed similar phenomena when addressing education, health care reform, immigration, affirmative action, gun control, and other issues that tend to attract strong partisan opinion. Kuklinski calls this sort of response the “I know I’m right” syndrome, and considers it a “potentially formidable problem” in a democratic system. “It implies not only that most people will resist correcting their factual beliefs,” he wrote, “but also that the very people who most need to correct them will be least likely to do so.”

And if you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

Joe’s essay is a bit misleading – he implies that ignorant voters are peculiar to the USA, but doesn’t offer any evidence. Our travels do not support the thesis us that Yanks have a lead in the competition for least-informed voter. Regardless of domocile, most people seem to have their priorities centered around making enough income to get their children the best education they can. As true of a Kenyan as a Kiwi farmer. Becoming seriously well-informed carries a real opportunity cost. Which is an inherent weakness of the imperfect scheme of democracy. Better offers?

One thought on “Truth will out. Won’t it?

  1. Frank Eggers

    If statistics on economics, welfare, etc., were regularly publicized, then probably we’d be better informed on them. Unfortunately, getting such statistics requires some digging and often we cannot be sure of the reliability of our sources. Part of the problem is the failure of the media to cover such matters adequately, or at all.

    Regarding how the government functions, presumably that does not frequently change. Therefore, one would suppose that good high school civics classes would adequately impart that knowledge thereby removing excuses for ignorance.

    Regarding clearly irrational beliefs and assumptions, probably there is little we can do.

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