Ignoramus et Ignorabimus

I have mentioned the problem of political ignorance a number of times on this blog, notably in connection with legislative inaction on access to justice. The idea ― which I have shamelessly borrowed wholesale from Ilya Somin (who explains it, for example, here) ― is that most people are ignorant about political matters writ (very) large ― about the way their country’s political system works, about the people running it and their policies, and also about the data that should figure in even the most basic political decisions. This is the case despite the fact that the relevant information is very easily available thanks to the internet, and much of it was already available through the traditional media. But, as prof. Somin argues, it is rational for a voter not to bother investing even a small amount of time and effort to acquire this information, since the odds of his or her knowledge making any sort of difference to the outcome of an election are infinitesimal.

This all sounds extremely shocking and cynical. It is certainly unpleasant. It would be nice if the wisdom of crowds were a thing. In Canada, I suspect that there’s an additional danger in thinking that this is all stuff for (and about) our ignorant American neighbours, and that we’re better than that. So the results of a multi-country study released by IPSOS-Mori are all the more sobering. We might indeed be (a little bit) less ignorant than the Americans; but the levels of Canadians’ ignorance about some basic facts are still depressing.

For example, the survey asked people how many people out of every 100 in their country were Muslim (none of the countries surveyed had a Muslim majority or even a significant minority). In Canada, the average answer was 20 ― but the true answer is 2. On this question, Canadians are actually among the most ignorant of the people surveyed, both in the absolute terms favoured by the survey’s authors (i.e. we overestimate the Muslim population by 18%) and in relative terms (i.e. we overestimate it by 10 times!) which seem a more relevant measure of ignorance to me ― though I’m no statistician and would welcome an explanation to the effect that this relative measure is actually silly. (In case that makes anyone feel better, in relative terms, Americans overestimate their Muslim population by 15 times, while in some Eastern European countries it is by 50 times!)

Similarly we are among the worst, at least in absolute terms, at stating the proportion of people in our country who are over 65 years old. The average Canadian answer was 39%. The true answer is 14%. (In relative terms the overestimation was actually quite similar across all the countries surveyed ― people just about everywhere seem to think the number of over-65s is two to three times what it is in reality; but the overestimation in Canada is still close to the upper end of that spectrum.)

Canadians do somewhat better, compared to others anyway, on the question concerning unemployment (“out of every 100 people of working age, how many do you think are unemployed and looking for work?”), but even here the results are nothing to be proud of. The correct answer here is 7 ― the average Canadian answer is 23. We overestimate unemployment by “only” three times ― way better than the Americans, who exaggerate it more than five-fold, or the South Koreans, who think it is eight times more than it really is in their country. But consider, for a moment, the average Canadian answer on its own terms. How do people even think that one person in four is employed? And that’s the average answer, by the way, probably meaning that quite a few said it was much higher. 23% is close to the number at which unemployment peaked during the Great Depression. Do people seriously think things are that bad ― or even worse? I am, honestly, flabbergasted ― and puzzled.

The answers to the unemployment question are not the only puzzling ones, I should say. Those for the over-65 one are too, for instance. How do people come to think that 2 out of 5 of their fellow citizens are seniors? Surely that’s not what they see around them, unless they live in nursing homes? Prof. Somin often cites, as an example of political ignorance, the extent to which people overestimate public spending on things like welfare and foreign aid (which is, unsurprisingly, very bad). But at least budget numbers are not something we deal with in our day-to-day experience. Shouldn’t we be able to guess, at least roughly, the number of over-65s just from what we see in the street? I guess even that’s too much to expect.

Prof. Somin’s normative takeaway from his study of political ignorance is that “smaller government is smarter” ― that we should want the government (and thus ignorant voters) to make fewer decisions for us, and let us get on with our lives, in which we are actually willing to expend a good deal of time and effort on acquiring information relevant to our decisions, because we know that these decisions will in fact matter. I, for one, find this a persuasive argument. You might not. But in any case, our political theories really must make an effort to account for the pervasive ignorance of even some basic and easily ascertainable facts under which most citizens exercise their right to vote. Ignorance isn’t going away. Universal education has not eradicated it; nor has the availability of free information on the internet. Considering that people hold beliefs in defiance of things they see every day with their own eyes, this is unsurprising. This is just very depressing.

UPDATE: Bobby Duffy, the managing director of the Social Research Institute at Ipsos MORI, ventures some explanations of the survey’s findings in a Guardian op-ed. Ilya Somin also comments on the IPSOS study over at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and did graduate work at the NYU School of Law. I then taught in New Zealand before taking up my current position at Reading.

12 thoughts on “Ignoramus et Ignorabimus”

  1. I take no issue with this conclusion: “our political theories really must make an effort to account for […] pervasive ignorance”. But Somin’s premise (at least as described above in para 1) is vulnerable because the theory of rationality he apparently employs is impoverished. It does not account for other important values such as participation in its own right and voting’s possible signalling effects. If it’s rational to participate, his ‘normative takeaway’ no longer follows. (If it ever does.)

    1. Actually, what Somin says is not that it’s not rational to participate but that even if you participate it’s not rational to expend time and effort on becoming informed. He also says, though I did not explain that above, that voters compensate by relying on heuristics such as party labels ― but those provide very imperfect, and sometimes outright misleading, information.

      Some people will participate, and acquire information, because they think it’s valuable for its own sake but as Somin also explains (that’s another point I didn’t make because it’s not directly relevant to my post), they tend to be partisans, and to process the information they acquire in all sorts of biased and perverse ways.

      Anyway, the point about rationality matters only by way of explanation of the fact of massive ignorance, which seems pretty hard to dispute. And I don’t think that the cause of the ignorance matters much for the validity of the “normative takeaway”, once we acknowledge its extent and persistence over time.

  2. I find the whole topic rather depressing. If the electorate, by and large, can be divided into those easily swayed by critical misunderstandings of the facts, and those who seek for a better understanding, but will only evaluate their findings through biased partisan lenses, then society is fundamentally irrational at virtually every level.

    And what does this mean for government? If the electorate is largely ignorant and easily swayed, and the only people who are interested in understanding any given situation only intend to evaluate based on their biases (doubtless to manipulate the former group), then what we really have is a thinly veiled technocracy. The governmental “managers”; the civil service, by and large run the government in a specific direction, only infrequently modifying their plans to account for the wishes of the government of the day; populated by cunning partisans brought to power through manipulating the ignorant masses.

    This could best be called “government for the fools, by the fools, and of the fools.”

    1. I would submit the Harper government’s criminal law policy as exhibit A for this proposition. But all governments are subject to that. Mr. Harper only understands these things better than most. And of course it’s depressing. I never said otherwise.

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