Shockingly, Americans Are Uninformed

Newsweek informs us that when it comes to policy knowledge, Americans are dolts. No real surprise there, though some of the particular results are alarming (29 percent can't name the vice president, for instance). But as these articles often do, it tries to end on a hopeful note:

For years, Stanford communications professor James Fishkin has been conducting experiments in deliberative democracy. The premise is simple: poll citizens on a major issue, blind; then see how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts. What Fishkin has found is that while people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending, they tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget. “The problem is ignorance, not stupidity,” Hacker says. “We suffer from a lack of information rather than a lack of ability.” Whether that’s a treatable affliction or a terminal illness remains to be seen. But now’s the time to start searching for a cure.

I'm sure this is neither Fishkin's nor Hacker's fault, but this is quite misleading. The exercises in deliberation Fishkin conducts aren't just about giving people the facts. They involve intensive education, asking questions of experts, and most important, civil discussion among people who start out disagreeing but are tasked with working out policy solutions together. It's an artificial situation, and the whole point is to determine what people would decide under conditions of optimal deliberation. The deliberative polls are very interesting, but that situation is nothing like the way people learn and decide in the real world.

The fact is that more information wouldn't solve our problem. That's because the problem isn't really that we don't know enough. After all, being in possession of a relevant group of facts may correlate with the ability to make wise policy choices, but it isn't the same as that ability. You can have facts in your possession and still choose to act stupidly or act irrationally. Boosting Americans' factual knowledge, in and of itself, would probably not decrease our system's basic dysfunctionality. But factual knowledge is relatively easy to measure, so we measure it.