Anyone for cat blogging?

Photo by Ohmann Alianne on Flickr

Anyone familiar with the findings of political scientists like Philip Converse, about the spectacular combination of profound ignorance and political disinterest of most voters, will be unsurprised by this story on Yahoo! News: 

LONDON (AFP) – Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real.
The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.

And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. The same percentage thought Crimean War nurse Florence Nightingale did not actually exist.

Three percent thought Charles Dickens, one of Britain’s most famous writers, is a work of fiction himself.

Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and Battle of Waterloo victor the Duke of Wellington also appeared in the top 10 of people thought to be myths.

Meanwhile, 58 percent thought Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Holmes actually existed; 33 percent thought the same of W. E. Johns’ fictional pilot and adventurer Biggles.

Similarly, close to a majority of Americans believe in “creation science”.  Although these sorts of beliefs don’t bear directly on our democratic choices, the work of Converse and others consistently shows equally profound levels of general ignorance about political parties, belief systems, issues and policies.  It makes you wonder why our governments aren’t even more inept or corrupt than they actually appear to be, if the people who elect them are so deeply stupid.  Political scientists like Samuel Popkin explain the conundrum by positing the proposition that people substitute “heuristics” or shortcuts to deal with political information overload, and that this works tolerably well, while others like Michael Schudson argue that people rely on trusted “monitorial citizens” such as influential media columnists or radio shockjocks to tell them how to think and vote.

More recently, this relatively rosy view about how democracy works has been somewhat undermined.

Markus Prior, for example, argues that the fragmentation of media generated by the Internet and cable TV makes Schudson’s monitorial citizen concept an implausible argument for the notion that people’s political behaviour might be more sensible than it seems.  Cable TV and the Internet enable average disengaged citizens to filter out politics from their lives completely and sink still further into previously unimaginable depths of ignorance. Cat bloggers appear to be much more numerous than their political counterparts.

American legal academic and Volokh Conspiracy blogger Ilya Somin is also among the democracy pessimists: 

In this 2004 paper I compile some of the extensive evidence showing that the majority of citizens lack even very basic knowledge about the parties, the structure of the political system, and major issues. The findings are consistent with a lot of previous research on the subject. In that paper and in this article, I try to explain why standard “information shortcuts” such as relying on political parties and opinion leaders are not enough to offset such deep and pervasive ignorance. I also relate actual levels of voter knowledge to the demands of different normative theories of democracy and explain why the actual levels fall short. They even fall short of the demands of relatively forgiving theories such as “retrospective voting” and Joseph Schumpeter’s approach. People can disagree about how much knowledge voters should have. But it’s very hard to show that the persistently abysmal knowledge levels that exist in the real world are anywhere close to adequate, even under a fairly weak undemanding conception of democratic participation.

However, as Louis Menand put it in the article about Converse linked earlier:

Man may not be a political animal, but he is certainly a social animal. Voters do respond to the cues of commentators and campaigners, but only when they can match those cues up with the buzz of their own social group. Individual voters are not rational calculators of self-interest (nobody truly is), and may not be very consistent users of heuristic shortcuts, either. But they are not just random particles bouncing off the walls of the voting booth. Voters go into the booth carrying the imprint of the hopes and fears, the prejudices and assumptions of their family, their friends, and their neighbors. For most people, voting may be more meaningful and more understandable as a social act than as a political act.

Of course, that means we’re intensely vulnerable as a community to unscrupulous politicians and their spin doctors who play on our hopes, fears and prejudices.  However, it seems they don’t get away with it indefinitely if what they’re actually doing is screwing the majority, otherwise John Howard would still be with us and GW Bush would be retiring an honoured hero.   Churchill was right when he said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.  And so was Abe Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.”

It may not be much but it’s all we’ve got.  I think I feel an urge to buy a cat.

PS – However, you can mount a plausible argument that Australian voters got it right most of the time on John Howard.  Systemic integrity demanded Keating’s rejection in 1996 after his dishonest “L-A-W law” election victory in 1993, and Howard’s small target strategy made him a seemingly reasonable choice at the time.  And in 1998 he arguably was the better choice on his record and policies to that point compared with a lacklustre Beazley-led Opposition.  In fact I even voted Liberal that year, the only time ever.  Moreover, with the benefit of hindsight most of us are probably relieved we didn’t end up with Mark Latham in 2004 despite Howard’s evident shortcomings.  By contrast, it’s hard to make a rational case for either of GW Bush’s victories.  

Update –  In a Reason article about the survey discussed at the start of this post, a commenter proposed the following similar quiz about American historical(?) figures.  See how you go:

 Real or fictional?

  1. Daniel Boone
  2. Davy Crockett
  3. Pecos Bill
  4. Buffalo Bill
  5. Annie Oakley
  6. Johnny Appleseed
  7. John Henry
  8. Paul Bunyan
  9. The Hatfields and the McCoys
  10. Mark Twain
  11. Tom Sawyer
  12. Huckleberry Finn

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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40 Responses to Anyone for cat blogging?

  1. Don Arthur says:

    Has anyone found out how this British survey was done? Was the sampling random or was it dodgy? Was it by mail, phone, internet…? How did they word the questions?

    Whenever people get excited about political ignorance I remember this joke. It’s a sexist joke so feel free to take offence. In the quiet brick veneered suburbs lives the kind of family John Howard dreamed about. A stay at home mum, two kids, a mortgage and a working dad.

    The wife says that her husband makes all the important decisions. He decides whether Kevin Rudd’s internet policy is good or bad, whether Obama would be a better president than Clinton and whether it was a mistake for Australia to join the war in Iraq. So what does she do? She makes all the unimportant decisions. Where they should buy a house, whether to re-finance the mortgage, what school the kids go to, where they should go on their holidays, what to put in the children’s lunch boxes…

    The husband sells cars for a living. The only thing (besides voting every now and then) that he does with all his important decisions is use them to answer survey questions and write posts on his blog. That’s why he’s too busy to worry about paying the bills, reading his credit card statements or checking up on the kids’ homework. His wife does all that unimportant stuff.

    Naturally we consider the husband to be a better informed and more responsible citizen … right?

  2. Ken Parish says:

    Fair comment, Don. Leaving aside the sexist dimension, it’s obviously true that there’s a strong utilitarian case (at least for many people) for not spending much time informing oneself about political issues. However, that doesn’t negate the problem. Albeit in a more indirect sense in terms of immediate everyday impact, political issues including who governs us and how are critically important to our future.

    Nourishing school lunches and an impeccable mortgage payment record won’t help any of us very much if we fry or drown because of global warming, or if our kids get conscripted to fight a war that some Bush-style moron got us into while we were all watching Desperate Housewives rather than news and current affairs shows.

    JS Mill observed the ignorance (rational/utilitarian or otherwise) of the masses and concluded that the only safe way was to impose a property qualification on the franchise, so only the moneyed classes with enough education and leisure time to pay attention to their civic duties would be able to vote. A modern day version of that would be non-compulsory voting (because those too busy living their lives just “vote with their feet”), although its recent record in the US doesn’t give much cause for optimism that it produces a superior quality of governance.

    OTO libertarians like Ilya Somin use Converse’s etc findings to argue for the minimalist state where the impact of stupid decisions by the idiots the lumpen masses elect is kept to a minimum, along with federalism so we can vote with our feet in a more literal sense if a state or regional government implements especially uncongenial policies.

    I don’t have any magical answers, but I think the whole issue is worth discussing not dismissing out of hand.

  3. Neil says:

    Much of the media’s reports are totally irrelevant not only to peoples lives but to Australia in general. This obsession with Super Tuesday is a perfect example it is nothing. Two US political parties are preselecting their candidates eventually there will be two. The two will then stand for election and one will become President (and that is important to Australia) the other will become a trivia question on US politics.

    So what is the point of the Australian Media reporting on Super Tuesday? 20 years ago would the Media have mentioned super Tuesday? Is this media obsession with American political culture healthy?

    How many families worried about their mortgage, next bills and their youngest cough that doesn’t seem to be a normal childhood illness sit transfixed by the TV when discussions on political irrelevancies occur? How many stop watching the News? How many simply think the whole thing is total bullshit?

  4. wilful says:

    Ken, re your PS. I presume the ‘most of the time’ qualifier was to account for 2001?

    And, of course, counting the 2PP for the 98 election leaves a different result.

    I used to be passionate about compulsory voting. These days I’m more in favour of voluntary.

  5. Ken Parish says:


    Yes, I had 2001 especially in mind, although of course that result too is entirely explicable as a rational, reasonably informed (or at least efficient) decision on voters’ part. Howard’s real beliefs, policy direction and radical dishonesty were well and truly on display by then, but the combination of Beazley’s vacillating longwindedness together with a rational desire to stick with a tried and true (if badly flawed) leader in drastically uncertain times in the wake of 9/11 arguably support the case that it was a sensible collective decision, whether it was arrived at by heuristics, guidance by a monitorial citizen or peer group fears and prejudices.

  6. Laura says:

    Ken, I advise you to buy a cat. See if having one actually does makes you dumber or less inclined to read the newspapers.

  7. Ken Parish says:


    My example was felinist in the same sense that Don’s was sexist – neither of us is disparaging either blokes, sheilas or cat lovers, they’re just convenient examples. One could use any activity as an example of leisure time that could (arguably at least) be better spent (by some and in part) in keeping informed about civic issues. Nevertheless, and as Don said, feel free to take offence if it gratifies you.

  8. Amanda says:

    It may be a convenient example but its a worthless one, in that there is no connection whatsoever between the mere fact of a person having a non-politics leisure activity (which is all having a non-politics blog indicates) and the amount of time a person devotes to informing themselves about political/social issues. It’s like saying because at this moment I am eating a tomato, I don’t get enough iron in my diet. Duh, I ate a steak last night.

    Some newspapers say this “real person or myth” survey was of British teens, anyway, not the public in general but the UK TV Gold website doesn’t make it clear. Frankly I wouldn’t rush to take it at face value.

  9. Laura says:

    It takes a lot more than a worn out cliche to offend me Ken. The point is that going in for conspicuously eccentric or frivolous “leisure activities” of one type or another doesn’t automatically correlate with a lack of curiosity about the wider world.

  10. Ken Parish says:

    Aaargh!! Of course it doesn’t!!! It’s entirely possible to strike a balance between civic duty and catblogging or any other leisure activity, and obviously both Laura and Amanda do so. However, the research by Converse and others shows that a very high proportion of people in fact make choices about what to do with their free time that completely exclude paying any attention at all to trying to understand what is going on in the world or even their local communities. The choices as to what they actually do with their leisure time will include all sorts of things, some of which are more readily lampooned than others. I’m waiting for the Desperate Housewives viewers to crank up into high dudgeon mode.

  11. Jacques Chester says:

    although its recent record in the US doesnt give much cause for optimism that it produces a superior quality of governance.

    Because those who turn out to vote are pretty much guaranteed not to be representative of the population.

    OTO libertarians like Ilya Somin use Converses etc findings to argue for the minimalist state where the impact of stupid decisions by the idiots the lumpen masses elect is kept to a minimum, along with federalism so we can vote with our feet in a more literal sense if a state or regional government implements especially uncongenial policies.

    That’s why I put voluntary voting as a low priority. In principle it’s hard to argue against; in practice it has been a moderating influence on government policy. I’d rather shrink government first.

  12. Amanda says:

    I’m merely trying to make your argument stronger, Ken, by removing the flippant one liner upon which all dudgeon will fixate. Its called tough love mate. ;-)

  13. Jacques Chester says:


    Ken seems to be getting nothing but Dudgeons and Dragons these days.

  14. Jacques Chester says:


  15. John Greenfield says:

    There is no surprise that this shocking mass ignorance and turn to the Right politically has occured during the rise of post-structuralist edu-babble such as “Critical Literacy.”

  16. Patrick says:

    By contrast, its hard to make a rational case for either of GW Bushs victories.

    Are you kidding? Have you forgotten the other horses?? Also, George Bush was a pretty good candidate in 2000 –

    1. Daniel Boone – real?
    2. Davy Crockett – fiction?
    3. Pecos Bill – fiction?
    4. Buffalo Bill – real?
    5. Annie Oakley – real
    6. Johnny Appleseed – fiction
    7. John Henry – real
    8. Paul Bunyan – fiction
    9. The Hatfields and the McCoys – fiction?
    10. Mark Twain – real
    11. Tom Sawyer – fiction
    12. Huckleberry Finn – fiction

    The hard part is that all the real ones have been so fictionalised inbetween times!

    It’s enough to make one a post-modernist ;(

  17. John Greenfield says:

    Don Arthur

    Actually, I would consider the missus more informed in your example. Contrary to Ken Parish I do not see any evidence of political junkies in the blogosphere holding any more political wisdom than my grease monkey brother who has never read a broadsheet in his life.

  18. Marks says:

    Yep John Greenfield, you have the right of it.

    I look at left and right wing blogs and see people of both integrity and intelligence with almost diametrically opposing political views. Numerically they are so similar that they, in most cases, cancel each other out.

    Not only does the summation of these two end up so close to zero, but it also approximates the random outcomes from those who know nozzing at all.

  19. John Greenfield says:


    I would trust the political wisdom of a single mother raising 3 kids who works at Coles over most Social Studies academics anyday.

  20. Ken Parish says:

    “I would trust the political wisdom of a single mother raising 3 kids who works at Coles over most Social Studies academics anyday.”

    It’s easy simply to dismiss this sort of research as just elitist crap if you don’t bother to read it. However, research has repeatedly shown that a quite high proportion of people have no idea at all about the policies or even the broad ideological positions of major parties. So where is the scope for “political wisdom”? I share your faith in the wisdom of the single mum (or ordinary bloke down the pub) as long as they have some broad brush idea about these things. However if (as is the case in a high proportion of people) they’re actually making their voting decision because their mum or dad has always voted that way, or because they like the twinkle in Brendan Nelson’s eye or have taken a shine to Julia Gillard’s red hair and really like her because her voice sounds just like Kath Day-Knight, it’s a bit more difficult to maintain that faith.

  21. James Farrell says:

    The question is, is there evidence that the masses are in fact getting dumber? Or is it just that we members of the superior classes have more exposure to their dumbness than before? A kid who didn’t who Napoleon was would have left school at 15 in the 1970s; I would only have met him years later as a client in his auto upholstery shop, where the topic of European history would not have been likely to crop up. In 2007 that kind of kid ends up in my third-year history of economics class. Furthermore, we now have people doing surveys on ignorance like the ones you quote; we have the Chaser stopping Americans on the street and asking them what religion is practised in Israel; and we have Miss North Carolina on display on Youtube, whereas in times past her spectacular display of ignorance would never have come to my attention.

  22. John Greenfield says:


    I am not even remotely persuaded that knowledge of this or that party’s “broad ideological position” matters a hill of beans. I used to be a marxist socialist who ONLY voted accoerding to a party’s “ideology.” But a society like Australia’s is far too open and power far too diffuse for ideological shibboleths of this or that party ever to get a run.

    Most (and I am not using that word as a weasel word, I really mean MOST) people’s lives are fuelled by a network of relations, institutional stabilities, etc. that are not all that sensitive to government ideology or theology. This was the great lesson of the twentieth century. Revolution is not possible, and stability is preferred to dynamism.

    One legacy from my marxist days is I am still a materialist and believe Marx made one of humanity’s most profound observations that human history is driven by the reality that all have to work to live. This reality is known by my single mother or your bloke down the pub, without any need to vist Leftwrites! :) They did not need a formal lecture by Labor to know Work Choices stank.

    I have found all the Luvvie sneering at the “aspirationals,” “plasma TVs” “McMansions,” “Cronulla rednecks” over the past decade to be a bloody disgrace. Since when are working class people not permitted to work for a higher quality of life?

    I think the days of people voting according to the way their parents vote died out in the 1970s. I have fought like cats and dogs with my father over politics since I was 15! :)

  23. Patrick says:

    James, I think you are spot-on – in fact that is one of the most perspicacious comments I’ve ever seen.

  24. FDB says:

    James – that’s a reasonable point, but also consider that we’re judging today’s ignorance by today’s standards. Everyone has access to plenty of information.

  25. Niall says:

    Democracy, in reality, is something we only get a glimpse of once every three years in this country. In the intervening period between the electorate being forced to register a preference, I’d suggest the pic on the article is relatively accurate, in the main.

    As for the Americentric ‘who am I?’ quiz……I’m an Aussie. I really don’t care who’s a phoney & who’s real.

  26. David says:

    We have access to more information than ever before but perhaps the quality and value is less than has been the case. The constant diet of trivia fed by the media may, at times, be entertaining but it is hardly enlightening for those who take the responsibility of voting seriously.

  27. Ken Parish says:

    “The question is, is there evidence that the masses are in fact getting dumber?”

    It’s certainly not the question as far as I’m concerned. As I mentioned in the primary post, JS Mill identified the problem of a disengaged and uninformed voting population 150 years or so ago. It would be very surprising if people today are getting “dumber”. Advances in nutrition, medicine etc mean that we’re bigger, stronger, faster etc on average than 50 years ago, and it would be surprising if we weren’t also smarter on average.

    That isn’t the point. Prior and others argue, against Schudson’s monitorial citizen construct, that the proliferation and fragmentation of media have resulted in at least some people’s attention to MSM news being reduced to such an extent that any concept of media as “monitorial citizen” is not credible. The chronically disinterested can avoid news and current affairs completely. It may be true, although I somehow doubt it. However, even if there’s been no reduction in the level of lack of political understanding/knowledge over time, as well may be the case, the consistent level of public ignorance that research has found over 40 years or so is worth considering in terms of its implications for liberal democratic society.

    I’m not suggesting that the sky is falling, as should have been apparent from the primary post. Democracy doesn’t work too badly all things considered, especially compared with all other systems tried to date, as Churchill memorably remarked. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t work better. It’s an especially relevant question given the ongoing expansion in the size, complexity and range of activities of government, and the increasingly sophisticated technologies that allow them to intrude into almost every aspect of our lives. It’s made even more relevant and urgent by the “war against terrorism” and the almost carte blanche permission it seems to have given police and intelligence agencies to attract increase funding, personnel and powers that would not so long ago have been seen as unthinkable. The fear of terrorism appears to have suppressed reactions to these erosions of freedom, which might otherwise have rung a burglar alarm with the public (to use a metaphor coined by yet another political scientist in John Zaller).

    What I was hoping to provoke was a discussion about what measures could/should be taken to improve the effectiveness and accountability of democratic government in light of this undeniable high level of civic disengagement. As I suggested, it might suggest voluntary voting. It might militate in favour of federalism and small government. It might suggest a need for universal education of secondary students in basic civics (along with history), so that future generations can detect and analyse spin/bullshit more effectively.

    And it might suggest a need for the development and enhancement of other checks and balances (e.g. strengthened FOI and administrative grievance processes; or the sort of TQM-style provisions that Nicholas Gruen often discusses, whereby departments would be required to take on board proposals for improvement of regulation and governance by their employees and clients), given that such a high proportion of the population is so disinterested that they don’t discharge even their most basic democratic duties in any meaningful way. No doubt there are lots of other ideas that could be considered, unless we’re happy to just shrug our shoulders and say “she’ll be right mate, it’s godzone country, so relax and grab a coldie”. This chronic civic disengagement by definition negates the ostensible basis for the system of “responsible government” on which Australia’s Constitution is founded. The US, for instance, has stronger separation of powers and a bill of rights, in part because it isn’t based on “responsible government” in the Westminster sense. Should we move in that direction? I don’t have any firm views, but it’s a reasonable question given that Australia has a system where the executive government isn’t meaningfully responsible to Parliament (because the rigid party system and its control of patronage enables the executive government to completely dominate Parliament), and that neither Parliament nor the executive government is meaningfully responsible in turn to the Australian people because most of us don’t have a clue and don’t give a rat’s arse anyway. Nevertheless, I suppose it’s predictable that most people, even on this forum of political junkies, don’t give a rat’s arse about the fact that everyone else doesn’t give a rat’s arse either!!!

  28. Mike Pepperday says:

    The Hansard from Runnymede is not on line but I bet King John told the barons they were far too clueless to rule. I can see him saying, You lot wouldnt even know who Ethelred was and half of you wouldnt know whether Beowulf and Merlin were real or fictional. So what makes you think you are competent to have a say in ruling the country? The spiritual descendants of King John have been saying the same thing ever since.

    A lot of people have answered Converse but two things stay with me:

    – at election time there are many very intelligent, knowledgeable people who vote Liberal. On the same day there are many very clever, learned people who vote for Labor. These people could not only tell you who Churchill and Tom Sawyer were but know heaps about the current political parties policies. There are even political science professors (who know practically everything) voting on both sides. So whats the point of knowledge?

    – historically, empirically, the greater the peoples SAY in running things, the better things run. This is so through time, seen over a millennium or the last century, or through place: Europe v. the rest, or within Europe, or whatever.

    Every survey shows the same shock horror ignorance yet probably our dullest voters have a greater knowledge than the average Swiss voter of the late nineteenth century – who had (and has) powerful CIR. The Swiss vote on laws and on every foreign treaty. This has not brought catastrophe but quite the opposite.

    Giving the people more influence, such as voting directly on laws, is my recommendation for improvement. It’s pretty well guaranteed to deliver a better result.

  29. Ken Parish says:

    Mike, you raise a point also raised by others: that knowledgeable and engaged people vote for both sides (so what does ignorance matter?). However, I’m not only (or even primarily) talking about voting every 3 years, but rather about much finer-grained and continuous oversight and accountability, as my suggestions in comment 27 indicate.

    I suspect that your position and mine are quite close on this point. Indeed, they’re not all that far apart on the G-G issue either. I’ll comment on that on the other thread.

  30. Jacques Chester says:

    So whats the point of knowledge?

    It’s less vulnerable to demagoguery.

    historically, empirically, the greater the peoples SAY in running things, the better things run. This is so through time, seen over a millennium or the last century, or through place: Europe v. the rest, or within Europe, or whatever.

    I don’t think it’s so simple. I support democracy because once settled and entrenched, it helps to prevent civil war. Otherwise I prefer a system which decentralises decision-making and rewards giving others what they want. The market is, broadly speaking, that system.

  31. wilful says:

    Having seen a Minister working at close hand, it surprises me just how democratic the system still is – they still seek to speak to all sides, and to accommodate opposing views, where possible. And it’s not jsut to try and fatten the pig for the election, it’s a commitment to true democracy.

    Of course, I suspect it’s only some of the Ministers, some of the time, and I happened to see a genuinely decent one.

  32. Mike Pepperday says:

    Jacques: “I support democracy because once settled and entrenched, it helps to prevent civil war. Otherwise I prefer a system which…”

    I don’t think you can logically say that. Do you think that your “system which…” should prevail without the people having power to argue for or against it? If so, you do not support democracy. Alternatively, do you want people to be able to argue over your “system which…” and about all other issues? If yes, then your system is up for debate and it is possible your preference might not prevail.

    In short, aren’t you saying: “I support democracy except for the following ground rules where MY preference is to have priority and be above all others’ preferences.”?

  33. James Farrell says:

    It would be very surprising if people today are getting dumber. Advances in nutrition, medicine etc mean that were bigger, stronger, faster etc on average than 50 years ago, and it would be surprising if we werent also smarter on average.

    I didn’t mean that people have become less inherently intelligent in some sense in the last 150 years. But I think there is a widespread, if vague, perception that general knowledge and political awareness have been on the decline in the last few decades. The ‘fragmentation of media generated by the Internet and cable TV’, a development of the last thirty years or so, suggests itself as one explanation. On the other hand, a reason had occurred to me why the perception might be false, and that was the point of my somewhat frivolously expressed comment.

    Ken, I concede that the trend in — as opposed to the level of — political knowledge and engagement, may not be the central issue as far as your argument is concerned, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

  34. Ken Parish says:

    A quick Google turned up this page about actual intelligence or at least IQ (as opposed to knowledge), containing this proposition:

    The second assumption is more interesting; we assumed measured IQ was/will be stable in each country. The Flynn Effect predicts this is false, and that measured IQ will increase over time. (Historical data provide significant evidence for this.) Many explanations have been offered for this effect, including steady improvement in testing procedures, and there is some evidence that in recent years the Flynn Effect has diminished.

    Certainly the graph on the linked page shows US IQ (the only developed western country shown) slowly but steadily increasing over time.

    As for changes in average general knowledge levels about politics over time, I haven’t seen anything on it in my patchy reading about this subject. What was the reason that had occurred to you as to why the perception of lower average levels of general knowledge/understanding might be false? The fact that a greater proportion of the population (at least in Australia) complete Year 12 than was the case 20 years ago would be one such factor.

  35. Dave Bath says:

    On cats and bloggers, I’d recommend the philosophical-IT-geeky xkcd cartoon here.
    [[There is a linear graph on which the x-axis is labeled “Human Proximity to Cat” and ranges from “Far” at the origin to “Near.” One line on the graph increases geometrically with x and is labeled “Inanity of Statements”; the other decreases geometrically with x and is labeled “Intelligence.” Below the graph are three stick figures, spaced evenly along the x axis. The third one is right next to a cat.]] / Figure 3: You’re a kitty! / {{alt: Yes you are! And you’re sitting there! Hi, kitty!}}

  36. James Farrell says:


    Against the perception, I suggested in my first comment the the political ignorance of our fellow citizens is more likely to come to our attention in 2007 than it was in 1977, giving us a misleading impression of decline.

    On the other hand, I found a couple of articles, and here, suggesting that College students know and care less about politics than the general population. You might find them interesting.

    Interesting you should mention the Flynn effect: it was on my shortlist of post topics.

    ##36-38 recommend themselves for deletion in my opinion.

  37. Jacques Chester says:

    In short, arent you saying: I support democracy except for the following ground rules where MY preference is to have priority and be above all others preferences.?

    Sure I do. But I accept that I have to obtain my preferred rules through democratic means, which is what I meant by democracy’s preventing civil war.

    See also: nomic.

  38. Pavlov's Cat says:

    For Niall at #25, here’s an Australian variant.

    Real or fictional?

    1 Ned Kelly
    2 Captain Starlight
    3 Captain Moonlight
    4 Captain Cook
    5 Blinky Bill
    6 Billy Snedden
    7 Barry MacKenzie
    8 Barry Humphries
    9 Barry Crocker
    10 Crocodile Dundee

  39. david tiley says:

    This just proves that a quarter of respondents have done media studies or somesuch at university. In a very real sense, Churchill was a myth – a creation designed to inspire the nation etc etc, while the reality was a mad drunk in a basement in Whitehall.

    (and let’s not argue about the details. You know what I mean.)

    One of my all time favourite surveys was also conducted in Britain. Something like forty percent of respondents believed that people’s brains could be occupied by aliens. If I remember rightly, a quarter of them thought they were being occupied by aliens at that very moment.

    It was done at Waterloo Station, late on a Friday night, in winter.

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