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Friday, December 10, 2004

American Ignorance

I've seen repeatedly the claim that Americans (especially conservative Americans) are ignorant, based on various poll questions. Indeed, the claim is that if only Americans weren't so ignorant, they would be able to understand the issues adequately to make informed choices and then they would, of course, vote for Democrats. For example, Allan Hazlett writes:
"There's a plethora of issues on which Americans are misinformed, and the issue is not one of a clash of normative beliefs, but simple ignorance of the facts."
I'll agree that Americans (and not just Americans) mis-regurgitate information all the time, but I'm less convinced that it's because they're "misinformed" or have a "simple ignorance of the facts." I think it's perhaps a "complex ignorance". Let me explain.

One's worldview is constructed as one absorbs many millions of factoids, some true, some false, over one's lifetime. Each new factoid causes an extremely small shift in the worldview. One can't possibly recall all of the factoids, indeed one can only recall a tiny, tiny fraction of one-percent of those factoids. Nonetheless, the factoids have been absorbed and incorporated into the worldview.

If I've been exposed to information, have considered it and allowed it to affect my worldview, but then forget the details, do I have a simple ignorance of those facts? I think not, since the information persists within my worldview. That's what I mean by "complex ignorance."

Now, some pollster (PIPA in this case) comes along and asks me some question. I sort of have a vague recollection that I've heard of these things before but I am hesistant to answer. The pollster encourages me to give it a try. I apply the answer most consistent with my worldview. It happens to be wrong. I am American and answered incorrectly, thus the poll makes Americans seem ignorant.

You might say "well, Kyoto is incredibly important, everybody should know all about that." I have two responses. The Kyoto treaty is hundreds of pages. Quick, off the top of your head, in the last English version, what are the points that are made in the second paragraph on page 97? What? You don't know? You don't remember? You didn't read it? But if it's so important, why not? Ahhh, because there are other things that are important too and it's an unimportant detail.

And I don't hold it against you. I don't consider you ignorant because you don't know those particular details. I'm fully aware that you can look up the information if needed. Just as the people being asked questions by the pollster. If they were given 5 minutes they could google it and come up with the right answer too. And the details of whether or not Bush supports Kyoto are probably really not that important to the average American on a day to day basis. Even in terms of who to vote for in the last election, that particular factoid would rank low relative to Iraq, moral values, the economy, healthcare, etc. for most people.

So I think the concern of conservative voters being ignorant and not having access to basic information is quite mistaken.

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