Sunday, March 14, 2010

What People Think They Know

As interesting as actual knowledge can be as a topic of research (or a blog), even more interesting are perceptions of knowledge -- not only what people know, but what people think they know.  In this case, let's talk global warming/climate change.

The fine folks at Gallup have asked: "Next, thinking about the issue of global warming, how well do you feel you understand this issue -- would you say very well, fairly well, not very well, or not at all?"  The bold face emphasis is mine.  How much do they think they know.  The results?

From 2006 to 2010, the numbers remain largely unchanged, but there is a tick upward in 2010 compared to previous years in what people think they know. See below:

              Very Well

2006            21%
2007            22%
2008            21%
2010            26%

Now you might find this bump heartening, but I suggest it's actually a bad thing.  Let me explain.  We've seen a drop in the proportion of people with a clue about science and who doubt global climate change -- sometimes for good reasons, sometimes because for silly partisan ones.  But I suspect this has bumped up the perception that people are knowledgeable when, more likely, they confuse strong feelings about a topic with knowledge about that topic.

I know of what I speak. I've done many studies looking at actual knowledge and how it compares with perceived knowledge.  The two are correlated, but imperfectly.  And often emotion gets in the way and makes people feel informed when, instead, they only think of themselves as informed.  While I don't have data here to explore this further, my educated hunch is this bump in 2010 of perceived knowledge about global climate change masks the role of ideological silliness, partisan pettiness, and a sense of being informed through emotion than really being informed. 

It'd be a fascinating topic.  Hmmmm.  Maybe time to go there.  Off to search for good, solid data.

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