Well-informed Nonsense

Kevin Drum, in Mindshare vs. Demographics, links to a Gallup poll that shows people overestimating the percentage of guys in America. He surmises that people are overestimating because gay and lesbian issues are prominent in the news. Even though personal experience doesn’t support that, for example, 20% of people are gay, the amount of news coverage makes them believe it’s more. It’s similar to how people always think crime’s going up because that’s all they see in the news. (Let’s ignore recent news coverage of a drop in crime for now. If you want a better example, let’s compare how threatened people feel about terrorisms and random kidnappings despite the really low chances they’ll be affected by this.)

I don’t know if Kevin Drum is right. I haven’t talked to any of these people. I don’t know any data other than the numbers from a Gallup poll that I never looked at myself. (I’m apt to believe that the real answer is more complicated than Drum’s speculations.)

Still, I brought it up just to show how knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from finding more information or being well-informed. In fact, those who follow the news (especially cable news) closely can have a very distorted view of the world. News stories exploit our cognitive biases toward narration and the shocking.

In a similar vein, Jonah Lehrer also has an interesting story on the wisdom of crowds.1 When you ask a large group of people (one at a time) to estimate how many marbles are in a jar, the average answer can be very accurate. Apparently, people can cancel out each other’s wacky guesses. Cool. Someone recently performed an experiment where they modified this a bit. Instead of giving them a question and having them answer it individually and isolated, they let people see what the group was thinking. The answers became more inaccurate because of groupthink. The range of answers narrowed as people adjusted their guesses to the crowd. Even worse, the people were more confident in their answers when they saw what the group was thinking.

I find the last part more troubling. That adding more information can make us stupider is a problem enough as it is. That it makes people more confident is even worse. People can read the news, think they’re well-informed, and be more confident in their base of knowledge, but they may be worse off than someone who doesn’t pay attention to the news at all. But at least the person who doesn’t read the news knows that he doesn’t know anything about current events.

1Just want to make a note that I’m really annoyed that I have to summarize what’s here before commenting on it, but it’s good practice. I don’t want to be too lazy with my writing.

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