Monday, April 16, 2012

People Are (not) Supid

Often people write the column or blog post that I wish I'd written.  Matt Corley did just that last month in The American Prospect, but I'm slow to stumble across it. 

His piece, Most Voters Aren't Stupid, touches on a common theme here and I strongly recommend his column not necessarily because I agree with everything he says, but for his lucid discussion of some of the pitfalls and problems that arise when we discuss what people know.

Let's start with his last graf:
Low levels of public political knowledge are an empirical fact, and journalists like John King shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging that—but, they need to be careful. Calling the public stupid isn’t only inaccurate—it’s counterproductive. Plenty of people are happy to paint themselves as the defenders of the American voter by responding to claims about voter ignorance with populist indignation.  In the end, it’s stupid to call voters dumb, but it’s ignorant to claim they’re well-informed. 
One of the conclusions he reaches, and one I agree with, is that people are "smart" about the topics they follow or interest them.  This harkens back to points argued far better by Doris Graber or, even better, V.O. Key, who famously said "The voters are not fools."  Yeah, there are "stupid" people out there, but they're stupid about everything.

Perhaps the main reason survey after survey finds the American electorate relatively uniformed is because the American electorate is relatively uninformed -- about the topics we ask about. 

Who writes the questions?  Political scientists, Pew Center survey managers, journalists, lots of folks with a PhD (um, like me) who are also news junkies and have a good idea what people should know, in a perfect world, about current affairs.  Certainly a good argument can be made for why people should be able to identify members of the Supreme Court, or recognize the president's latest economic proposal, or be aware of the latest development in the Middle East.  But as Marcus Prior so aptly pointed out, choice has allowed many -- who never really cared about public affairs -- to flee the news for more entertaining content.  Graber, in particular, used in-depth interviews to demonstrate people are informed -- about the topics that matter to them, which often differ from the topics we prefer to ask about.

In-depth interviewing?  Hard.  Survey questions?  Easy.  And cheaper.  And more generalizable to the population as a whole.  It's a methodological balancing act.

Plus let's not underestimate the importance of pseudo-news, faux news, partisan hackery (which sums up cable "news" to a large extent).  Much more colorful to be true, much for fun and a fitting example of my empty calorie news hypothesis that as people fill up more and more on the more entertaining versions of news, they're less likely to consume real news.  The result?  People appear, if not stupid, a lot less informed in our traditional surveys than we'd like.  

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