Thursday, September 18, 2008

Changes in Political Knowledge

Rick Shenkman, in a Washington Post article this week, sets up five straw myths about what people know and knocks 'em down, one by one. Kinda.

Shenkman, author of the book Just How Stupid Are We?, says the myths are:
  • Our voters are pretty smart
  • Bill O'Reilly's viewers are dumber than Jon Stewart's
  • If you just give Americans the facts, they'll be able to draw the right conclusions
  • Voters today are smarter than they used to be
  • Young voters are paying a lot of attention to the news

In fairness, a few hundred words in the Post is not enough room to give any of these points the depth and credit they deserve. But there are a lot of apples and oranges comparisons going on here, particularly when talking about change in knowledge over time. Age and education also get all intertwined with media exposure factors such as who watches what program or network. The third point is subjective, and certainly the people who promote deliberative democracy projects would hasten to argue as to whether giving information leads to better decision making (assuming we can all agree what are the "right conclusions").

The column jumps from 9/11 to a recent Pew knowledge test to argue the final point, that young voters pay a lot of attention to the news. David Mindich probably answered this better than most in his book, but even then it gets more complicated than the Post column suggests.

If I didn't have to run out and take care of some business, I'd break this down more. Damn those non-blogging responsibilities.

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