Are Public Ignorance and Misinformation Getting Worse?

Many people believe political ignorance and misinformation has gotten worse with the advent of social media and the exploitation it by conspiracy theorists and populist movements. However, evidence to support the notion that people are more inept and more susceptible to misinformation than they were earlier is very weak.

The recent articles of Tyler Cowen, a libertarian-leaning economist and Matthew Yglesias, a liberal political commentator, provide helpful summaries of much of what is available. They are correct to say that the problems they face have not gotten worse over the years. However, this doesn’t mean that we should feel relieved about misinformation and public ignorance. We should instead understand that bias in information evaluation and political ignorance were serious issues all along, even though academics and pundits weren’t as focused.

Cowen denies that Covid’s era was filled with misinformation. Instead, he reminds us of the past and explains why they were worse.

Misinformation can be difficult to quantify over time. The idea that there ever was a golden age in accurate information is speculative, particularly about public healthcare.

Just recently turned 60, which means that my youth seems distant. Still, I can recall debates about smoking: not so much whether it was bad for you — that science was established, and the federal government had already initiated an anti-smoking campaign — but whether it was really all that bad. Not just a few cigarettes a day, I mean a handful of them. Socially, scientific knowledge was not as important as today. There were also many more smokers. That meant social opinion was invariably somewhat split….

I’m not sure that public misinformation has improved in my lifetime. When I look at the extent of misinformation in general over the past six decades, my uncertainty only grows. Experts and public members used to believe that the Soviet Union had a perfectly functioning economy. They believed that the Vietnam War was acceptable. They saw Nixon’s wage and price control as justifiable.

Cowen’s listing of examples could easily be expanded. One example is the long-standing anti-vaxxerism movement and its promotion of queck medicine. This can be seen in Cowen’s list of examples. In his article, Yglesias gives some examples.

Voter ignorance and misinformation are serious issues that go beyond the health of public health. They have plagued democracy for nearly as long as it has been around, even back in ancient Greece. Trump’s 2020 election “Big Lie”, is a dangerous and notable example of today’s misinformation. It is not worse than the widespread belief in World War I’s “stab in your back” myth, which was a key factor in Nazis’ ascendance to power in the Weimar Republic.

Fascism and communism were popularized in an era of traditional media, such as print and broadcast media. Both ideologies were able to exploit ignorance of the public in many ways. There has been nothing that’s happened since the advent of Facebook and Twitter.

Yglesias reviews evidence that shows political knowledge levels are roughly steady over the past 20 to 30 years. He correctly points out, however, that conspiracy theory believers are more likely to be closely following political issues than the rest of us and therefore may be more knowledgeable than some. However, he is incorrect in suggesting that people may be better-informed today than ever before, and that increasing our political knowledge would not make a difference in solving difficult policy problems.

Yglesias points out that accurate information about many topics is now more accessible than ever thanks to the internet. Most voters don’t even bother to make use of this. Yglesias admits that the public’s knowledge about basic facts has remained at a low level in recent years. Even the most basic facts about government and how it spends money are not well understood by the majority of the population.

Yglesias rightly emphasizes that policy can be improved by increasing public understanding on difficult topics. Even the best experts have deep disagreements about how to proceed. It is true that experts are often able to agree on important issues, even though the evidence tends strongly in favor of one side. Exclusionary zoning is an example of evidence that strongly supports cutting back on it would increase economic growth, expand opportunities for the poor and improve the quality of life for all. Immigration is another example where the evidence supports that greatly expanding immigration will have enormous benefits for everyone.

There are enormous potential benefits in both of these areas and there is wide expert consensus on the point. Public ignorance in both areas is a major obstacle to positive change. Most of the public is either unaware of the huge gains that can be achieved, or  (in some cases) actually believes that liberalization would be harmful (e.g. Falsely believing that immigrants increase crime or that zoning restrictions should be removed to benefit wealthy gentrifiers.

Ich will add, I have to say that it isIt is not There is a consensus of opinion among experts that these issues should be addressed as much as possible (all the while pursuing a near total abolition or complete elimination of zoning and supporting open border immigration policies). However, there’s broad consensus among experts on this issue. DirectionChange – The necessity to dramatically liberalize both zoning regulations and migration barriers, even if there’s less agreement on where the best place to stop. Yglesias, to his credit, has focused attention on these topics, even in his most recent book One Billion Americans. However, he fails to recognize the important role played by public ignorance regarding these matters.

These are not the only problems where ignorance can lead to serious difficulties. Our looming fiscal crises (where the majority of Americans don’t know where their federal funds go), free trade (where people often support protectionist policies that are contrary to centuries of economic theory), and many other issues.

These issues can be referred to as “low hanging fruit”, where policies can be significantly improved, if public ignorance wasn’t such a problem. We could eliminate many of the popular choices that do great harm, even if we disagree on what policy is best.

Yglesias also has a point. Knowledgeable voters don’t always mean better. Conspiracy-mongers can be very knowledgeable in a certain sense. They are indeed very knowledgeable, having learned large quantities of facts. They are also more likely to have biased opinions about political information. There are two sides to the problem of political inadequacy. Scholars call it “rational ignorance” or “rational irresponsibility”. Here is a summary of these dynamic and their relation to conspiracy theories that I have recently written:

Most people don’t know enough about politics or government policy to make any difference in an election outcome. These people spend little time researching relevant information. Many are also unaware of basic facts regarding the political system. People with low education levels and limited political knowledge are more likely to believe in birtherism, trutherism and Covid conspiracies. You will believe more about government the less you understand.

However, conspiracy theories are also popularized due to ideological and partisan biases. Most people don’t view political information as truth-seekers. They see themselves as politically influenced and “political supporters”. This means that they tend to value claims that are consistent with their beliefs, downplaying or ignoring those that do not. Like sports fans who are biased against their team, but not against their rivals, so too is the bias of political supporters. They tend to favor their favorite party or ideology over its opposition.

Many conspiracy-mongers can be described as extreme “political enthusiasts,” who study politics more to enhance their fan experiences than for truth. These fan behaviors are often rational. Because of the low chances of one vote being a significant factor, many people seek political knowledge for other reasons than to find the truth. It is possible to have extreme biases in how you evaluate information when truth-seeking does not exist. Bryan Caplan called this “rational rationality.”

Successful politicians know the dangers of ignorance and rationality and are able to capitalize on them. Donald Trump’s win in 2016 was largely due to his exploiting of ignorance, biases on immigration and trade. Barack Obama and other more traditional politicians like him, however, often use ignorance to their advantage. Political ignorance and bias in the evaluation of evidence is not only a problem for one party or a handful of particularly egregious politicians, as I’ve repeatedly stressed. They systematically reduce the quality of  government all round, on both left and right.

Researchers Scott Althaus and Caplan found large gaps in the policy views of more educated voters than those who are less knowledgeable. This difference is not due to cognitive biases or partisanship, but rather the result of greater knowledge.

There is no need to dismiss the problem of bias and ignorance. There are two key aspects to this matter that make things even more interesting. AreThis is worse than ever before. The first is that the government’s increasing size, complexity, and scope increases voters’ knowledge. This also expands the number of topics on which ignorance can have a detrimental impact. This is something I talk about in detail in my book. Democracy and Political Ignorance. A second reason is that people are more likely to be biased in the assessment of information during periods of extreme partisan polarization like this one.

This is not to suggest that a greater political understanding is always a good thing. Chapter 2 in my book discusses some rare situations where increasing political knowledge actually leads to harm. I will discuss situations in which increased knowledge allows people with bad values to achieve their goals more effectively, and when ignorance about one topic can offset potentially damaging effects of ignorance on the other. These cases, however, are rare exceptions to the general rule.

In sum, there is good reason to worry about public ignorance and the influence even if the problem isn’t significantly worse than  in the past. It is more difficult to decide what you should do.

It is a difficult subject that must be dealt with at another time. If you are curious, however, I’ve written extensively about the subject in several previous writings including this book and my recent article. National Affairs. Other scholars have written a substantial amount of research on the subject, some of which advocate completely different approaches to mine.