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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Don Arthur
Don Arthur
14 years ago

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?

Neil
Neil
14 years ago

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?

wilful
wilful
14 years ago

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.

Laura
14 years ago

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

Amanda
14 years ago

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.

Laura
14 years ago

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.

Amanda
14 years ago

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. ;-)

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
14 years ago

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.”

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

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 ;(

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
14 years ago

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.

Marks
Marks
14 years ago

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.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
14 years ago

Marks

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

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

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.

John Greenfield
John Greenfield
14 years ago

Ken

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! :)

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

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

FDB
FDB
14 years ago

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.

Niall
14 years ago

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.

David
David
14 years ago

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.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
14 years ago

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.

wilful
wilful
14 years ago

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.

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
14 years ago

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.”?

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

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.

Dave Bath
14 years ago

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!}}

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Ken

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, http://www.usca.edu/polisci/sshjournal/volXVIX/botsch.htm 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.

Pavlov's Cat
14 years ago

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

david tiley
14 years ago

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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