Thursday, March 24, 2011

What People Know isn't
as Important as We Thought

An article in the Spring 2011 Public Opinion Quarterly includes an article with a title sure to grab my attention: Rethinking the Role of Political Information (pdf of full article here).

Why did it grab my attention?  First off, I don't want to have to rethink anything.  How dare the journal and the author suggest I do so.  And yet here it is, POQ, saying I should.  Of course anything with political information dovetails nicely with what I scribble about here, so I skim academic journals for blogging material (because, let's face it, no real person with a life is going to bother doing this). 

Reasons enough, and yet here's the kicker for me -- it's a study that challenges the conventional wisdom.  Not challenge in an earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting kind of way, but the author (Matthew Levendusky at Penn) does suggest, based on his analyses, we give too much credence to the power of what people know.  He does a nice job of discussing how much political information matters, or we think it matters, while managing to appropriately not cite me at all (grrr, c'mon guy, I need the social sciences citation hits).  In an analysis that gets a wee bit more complicated than I want to wrestle with here, he finds support for his notion that previous studies overstate the relationship between political information and political behaviors such as voting and participation.  Or, as he put it, "the effects of general political information are much smaller than previous estimates suggest, thereby opening up the possibility that other factors and other kinds of information ... matter to voters."   

In a large part, this matters mostly to those who do academic research in which political knowledge is a control variable in predicting political behaviors.  In a small part it suggests something more and something deeper, that perhaps what people know -- always thought to be vital in a democracy -- perhaps doesn't matter as much as we thought, and that the costs of improving political knowledge in the electorate will provide us few gained benefits in other behaviors, like voting and participation. That's a little depressing.

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