Baleful influence of ignorance

February 3, 2010

Just come across this post by David Moore, examining why the US public seems to have contradictory and confusing views on President Obama’s proposed health care reforms.

The reason? A substantial number of respondents do not understand the issue. Hence their responses to detailed questions about policy: “they respond in an almost random fashion”, influenced by their previous answers or the way the question is phrased.

Now, while this point is made in the context of US public policy, the general point is perfectly applicable to a range of topics where the evidence is factually complex and technical – climate change, the best way to tackle the economy, education reform, military strategy in Afghanistan … topics on which the public are polled regularly but of which they are largely uninformed.

This isn’t to say people can’t or shouldn’t have a view on a topic simply because they haven’t written a textbook on it, but it is not possible to elicit meaningful responses if respondents are in ignorance of the question.

One approach may be to set poll questions which test a respondent’s level of knowledge about a subject, and cross-tabulate their overall responses with knowledge. If the variation is random, then that’s a safeguard against the influence of ignorance.

Of course, there are complex issues (of faith, morals, general public policy) where lack of detailed knowledge is no barrier to holding a perfectly valid opinion. Few of us would wish to disqualify adults from expressing a voting intention just because they hadn’t read all the party manifestos.

But when it comes to detailed questions on matters about which they’re in the dark, the public’s view is no more fairly represented by a poll than the state of moden music is represented by the winners of the X Factor. The trouble is, both are here to stay.

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