Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What We Know
What We Can Find Out

Does political knowledge matter in a Google world? In other words, is what people know all that important as compared to what people can find out?

I've been mulling this one over. Here I am, a guy who studies how people acquire political knowledge and the role the news media play in the process, and now to make my life worse I'm wondering how much all this matters. Does it make me more knowledgeable that I can name my U.S. representative and senators, or am I knowledgeable given I can Google those names quickly and efficiently.

Is mere factual recall a good measurement of knowledge? Or is it the ability to quickly find and use that information that matters?

In part I'm splitting conceptual hairs, in part I'm tinkering with knowledge versus sophistication versus expertise versus (insert your favorite variable here). But now I wonder whether the ability to search and find information is not, in itself, a form of political knowledge. My gut says no. My head says ... hrmmm ... mebbe.

Obviously from a measurement standpoint we can't easily gauge someones ability to quickly find and use political information, especially not in a telephone survey, so those tests of political knowledge aren't going away any time soon. Just how to measure political knowledge is controversial. I've blogged on this in the past, I'll blog on it some more in the future. It's a great topic that cuts across research methods and theory and all the rest -- the kinds of questions we ask, the ways we ask them, how tinkering here and there can mess with the results.

But we return now to my original question: has what we mean by knowledge changed somehow in a Google world? I think it has, though I'm not exactly sure what that means or how you study it. I'm gonna wrestle this one down to the ground in the next few weeks, get a little dirty in the process, and decide whether it's (1) a question worth asking and (2) if so, how to go about it, and (3) is age a significant factor here.

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