The ignorant cannot be given fact pills. We’d better deal with it

We are ignorant and we are wrong and even pathologically ignorant. Or perhaps, following Dan Davies, we can’t do percentages. Either way, the Royal Statistical Society poll is bracingly depressing.

I occasionally talk about the “deficit model of ignorance”. In the light of the poll, I thought I’d set it out more clearly. The deficit model of ignorance defines ignorance to be a deficiency disease, in which individuals lack facts and are therefore prone to believing nonsense. Ignorant individuals know fewer facts than non-ignorant individuals. This is true as far as it goes. The problem arises when you try to determine causes or prescribe treatment. The deficit model leads to the conclusion that you should, somehow, give them fact pills. Once supplemented with facts, they’ll be OK.

The problem, though, is that this doesn’t actually work, and raises the question as to why they got like that. The environment around them is information-dense, so how come they lack facts? Further, even the non-ignorant must be sometimes short of a fact but they don’t end up believing that 15 out of 100 teenage girls get pregnant every year. Looking at the RSS poll, there are several questions in there I would have needed to look up.

Something else is clearly at work, and this is why demanding to know why Ed Miliband won’t just PUT THE FACTS BEFORE THE PEOPLE is bullshit cryturbating. The facts are, in fact, before the people; they always have been. It is a great Enlightenment myth that the freedom of information is a sufficient criterion of democracy.

A couple of things that are going on here: the first is motivated cognition. A lot of people believe stupid things because they want to believe. This probably explains why so many people seem to imagine that the money they draw from the government isn’t “benefits” or “welfare”.

The second is the tendency to answer an easier question if one is available, an insight from Daniel Kahneman. This might explain the phantom pregnancies above; people guessed a number that felt plausible rather than confess to being ignorant.

The third is the salience-heuristic, for good and ill. One thing that fell out of the RSS poll was that people’s estimates of big national issues were very often more accurate when they were asked about their local community, rather than the nation as an abstract entity. As a result, they were less worried about immigration, happier with public services (and life generally), but more worried about individual moral (or pseudo-moral) scandal. This implies that they got information locally from a combination of direct experience and gossip, and nationally from the media plus the expanded gossip-network on the Internet.

Fairly clearly, the two social options act as amplifiers – one pregnant teenager goes a long way – and the mass media as a filter, reducing the range of information available. Sociability probably reduced the accuracy of judgment locally, by increasing salience, and increased it nationally, by countering the elite consensus.

Personally, I think the notion of “filter bubbles” is much more valid about the selectorate that runs the mass media, enforcing elite consensus. Years of Internet experience suggest to me that the social media are more about amplification; increasing the salience of concerns we opt into, rather than decreasing the salience of disturbing news. (I certainly get more unwelcome news from my Twitter timeline than from the newspaper.)

So, to sum up: trying to fight ignorance by shouting facts is futile, because the ignorant are not fact-deficient individuals. If they were aware of their lack of facts, and able to find them, they wouldn’t be ignorant in any meaningful sense.

Further, we should think carefully before assuming that information fluoridation is the solution. Pouring barrels of fact into the water supply will not necessarily work, and may actually lead to a net increase in ignorance. Consider the Daily Hell‘s discovery that the civil service has corporate credit cards; does anyone think that releasing their exact spending is actually helping? Isn’t it more likely to just result in bullying public servants over pence, or perhaps creating a more painful, slow, expensive, and complicated accounting process? Reactionary Open Data is a thing, you know.

5 Comments on "The ignorant cannot be given fact pills. We’d better deal with it"

  1. The facts may all be out there somewhere for all to seek, but most people devote their time to other things, and instead have prejudices filtered through to them instead. Fortunately many people lack the gullibility needed to swallow these bigoted lies and half-truths, but they have enough of a reception that they need to be challenged somehow. But probably with a bit more passion than just by revealing ‘the facts’.


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