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October 10, 2012

If You're Not Depressed Yet, You're Not Paying Attention

Snarky thing that we are, we would not have thought it possible to overestimate the ignorance of the average citizen:

...multiple choice surveys showed that only about 32% of the public knew that Paul Ryan was a member of the House of Representatives. These polls were taken before he was nominated for the vice presidency but after he had been a major figure in American politics for several years. Other multiple choice questions reveal massive ignorance about the distribution of federal spending. Back in 2009, a multiple-choice survey found that only 24% knew that “cap and trade” is an environmental program, even though it had just passed the House of Representatives (I cite the data in this article). And there’s many other examples where those came from.

Moreover, if open-ended survey items overstate ignorance, multiple-choice questions often understate it, because ignorant people will sometimes get the right answer by guessing. In an age of standardized testing, many people are used to the idea that they should guess on a survey question if they don’t know the right answer. And some prefer that option to admitting ignorance. If there are 4 options on a multiple-choice question, random guessing gives you a 25% chance of getting the right answer, and your odds go up if there are only 2 or 3 options.

We were reminded of this blast from the past:

Why is Bill Clinton still president? It seemed rather unlikely that he would last more than a week or two when the news of his affair with a White House intern surfaced. His survival exemplifies a crucial and almost certainly insurmountable problem with modern democracy, one with vast implications for the ration-ality of public policy: the problem of public ignorance.

The key to understanding President Clinton’s survival is to keep in mind his conversations with political consultant Dick Morris when the scandal broke. At first Clinton proposed an apology to the American people, and Morris took an overnight poll to see how it would be received. The poll showed that although a substantial minority of those surveyed condemned the affair, most did not think it warranted resignation or removal from office. But the majority of those surveyed demanded the president’s voluntary or involuntary removal if he had committed perjury or obstructed justice.

In the end, of course, the public did not support Clinton’s removal, despite credible evidence of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Whoever said, "The mind is a terrible thing" wasn't kidding.

Posted by Cassandra at October 10, 2012 12:32 PM

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I'm impressed that as many as 32% could identify Ryan as a member of Congress, and I suspect that your multiple-guess theory may explain it best. What do you think you'd have gotten if you asked people to fill in the blank: "Paul Ryan currently draws a paycheck from his job as _________"? We have a president who was a sitting member of the Senate, who presumably knew that it had 100 members and perhaps could divide 100 by 2 with the aid of a calculator, and yet did not know how many states there are in this country. And voters didn't even care. We've got members of Congress who think islands can tip over, and I'm not even going to belabor the Akins point.

I don't understand how the country even functions at the level of growing food and distributing it to people, let alone keeping the power plants operating, with this kind of human potential. It's got to be Morlocks and Eloi.

Posted by: Texan99 at October 10, 2012 01:09 PM

PS -- when I'm upset, I put the word "even" into every sentence, and fail to edit for grownupness.

Posted by: Texan99 at October 10, 2012 01:10 PM

I'm not surprised by anything.
Well, ok. There was that incident with the naked woman in Starbucks, but I wasn't really surprised so much as I was delighted. And then there was that time a few Super Bowls back when Eli Manning escaped from about 40 tackles to throw pass down field to a guy who caught it with his head and the Giants beat the then-to-fore undefeated new England Patriots. That also surprised and delighted me. But 32% of folks not knowing who Paul Ryan is doesn't surprise or delight me. I'm guessing the same percentage couldn't distinguish Joe Biden from Bob Uecker. (Hint: Uecker's funny.)

Posted by: spd rdr at October 10, 2012 01:42 PM

Whoever said, "The mind is a terrible thing" wasn't kidding.

That would be Rahm Emanuel.

As to the ignorance thing, that's all Bush's fault. And Romney's lying about it. Just ask Big Bird. And y'all are racists, too, for even thinking about that soft bigotry stuff.

Now cut it out and go vote for Obama. Early and often. Then do it the Chicago way, too: drop dead, and vote again.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at October 10, 2012 03:49 PM

Eric, you forgot to add the dead people's dead animals.

Posted by: Carolyn at October 11, 2012 12:26 AM