The Worrying State of Political Education

It ought to be deeply concerning that people regularly search for numbers 2, 4, 6, 7, and yes, even 8.

Click to enlarge.


  1. Honestly, people. The density of just about all the water on earth is about 1000 kg/m^3. It’s not hard to remember.

    1. Wrong! It’s 1 g/mL! ;)

      (I find it easier to remember stated that way. But at least I know how to do dimensional analysis/unit conversion.)

      1. Or, you know, 62-63 poundmass per cubic foot depending on salinity and temperature… or roughly 1.9 slugs per cubic foot… :)

        For some reason, I prefer to express 1g/mL as 1g/cc… but I don’t know if that’s a general volume preference or not…

  2. Is somewhat disagree. Some of this could be more reflective of people’s search-engine and internet illiteracy. If I wanted to learn more about the Nobel Peace Prize, I would go to directly to wikipedia or the Nobel website itself. A less savvy user would like just type “Nobel Peace Prize” into google. But so many people do not understand search engines and simple logical searches – they think they’re talking to someone (think They want to see an article that starts “The Nobel Peace Prize is…” so, they ask, “What [exactly] is the Nobel Peace Prize?” Not because they are clueless about the prize, just about how to use the internet.

    I don’t think these searches are necessarily indicative of an ignorance akin to a 5-year old asking “Mommy, what’s sex mean?” It is somewhat disconcerting, though. Who is just now wondering about the public option? And the Bill of Rights inquiry covers a wide range; it could be asking for a list of the first 10 amendments, or it might not even know that much.

    But maybe, more deeply concerning is that we can find it forgivable that the general public may not know many details about a lot of those topics. I can’t tell you what’s in each of the first 10 amendments specifically (I can for roughly half of them, most days), but I’m generally familiar with what they cover collectively, and that those protections are in the Bill of Rights, not the Constitution proper. But it’s clear that much of our population is way less familiar with the Bill of Rights. And that’s not as upsetting as it should be. I seem to accept that the general public doesn’t know much about the Nobel Peace Prize beyond it being a prize for peace, from some Europeans (and probably that those Europeans also give out some science-type prizes, too). But really, we should expect people to know who Alfred Nobel was and why he established the prizes, not because it’s critically “important” but because it’s not dificult to know and it’s interesting and adds to one’s knowledge of the world.

  3. I think that’s plausible, Kris. You don’t know that people are “regularly” searching for “what is the bill of rights”, just that it’s fairly popular among searches that begin with “what is the”. There’s selection bias for a certain level of obliviousness here.

    I don’t know how concerning we should really find this sort of widespread ignorance, or at least I don’t know that one can realistically hope for better. This topic comes up pretty frequently, and we get a parade of figures illustrating just how little the average person knows, but the implication always seems to be that people are stupid now. I bet people have always been this stupid, but we’ve only noticed this in the last few decades because only relatively recently has anyone cared about or been able to poll the knowledge of non-elites.

    To some extent, of course, these are just shibboleths, and one reason that huge numbers of people are totally ignorant of pretty basic facts (25% are geocentrists, right?) is just that those facts are totally irrelevant to their daily lives. I’d say that this is even true for political facts – most people aren’t qualified to evaluate whether or not the public option would be a good idea even given an accurate understanding of what the public option is. My impression is that a lot of people who write on this are speaking from a desire to see that the trivia they value is also valued by others. My stock response to complaints that the kids today don’t understand the most basic notions upon which our modern society is based is to ask “well, can you tell me what the indefinite integral of x^2 is?” It’s fine to want our society to be producing well-rounded individuals with a very broad range of knowledge, but too often (and I’m not pointing a finger at ACG here) the attitude of the author seems to be “what matters is that the public doesn’t know the things I know – the things I don’t know aren’t important”. Regardless, I think we’re stuck with the fact that most people either won’t or can’t become familiar with most of the stuff that intellectuals of the day think they ought to know.

    1. [O]ne reason that huge numbers of people are totally ignorant of pretty basic facts… is just that those facts are totally irrelevant to their daily lives.

      I totally agree. And really, that’s the case with something like the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, the ignorance is inexecusable when the topic is relevant to daily life. Too many people can’t even roughly calculate a tip for a waiter.

      But then you also have issues like climate change. Understanding climate change is not a part of daily life, but the impacts of fighting it (or not) surely will be, and so people care without actually understanding. But if you’re going to demand that your “opinion” be counted on something, you should understand it.

      “[W]hat matters is that the public doesn’t know the things I know – the things I don’t know aren’t important.”

      That’s an important bias to be aware of. And it speaks to the prioritization of knowledge and understanding. I love literature, but it is significantly over-emphasized in our educational system while civics – exactly what makes for good citizenry – is under-emphasized, and science and math, well, they have problems.

    2. I completely agree that the best thing would be to defer to the judgment of people who know better when you don’t understand the issue, but that just doesn’t work in practice. Obviously there’s a Dunning-Kruger effect here, where some of the people who are least able to evaluate the cases for climate change or evolution, say, think that they completely get what’s going on.

      But there’s a more important problem here – most people, I feel, actually do understand that they couldn’t make a good case for or against man-caused climate change on the evidence that they’re aware of alone. And many of us are sensible enough to defer to experts. But which experts?

      Maybe there are lots of people whose opinions I hear a lot (because I see them on tv, read their columns, hear them speak at church) and who I trust to come to the right conclusions because they come to the right conclusions on things that I’m much surer of (such as gay marriage, the war on terror, abortion, etc). If they seem pretty sure about climate change one way or the other, I’ll trust them over the guy on the other channel, because the guy on the other channel clearly isn’t as trustworthy (as evidenced by his wrong-headed take on all of those issues that I have such strong intuitions about). Maybe in an ideal world I just wouldn’t vote on this issue at all, but these people I trust are telling me it’s a big deal, and the guy on the other channel is going to be drumming up a lot of misguided support for what my guy credibly tells me is disastrous policy.

      TL;DR: the root problem is that it’s actually very difficult for most people to distinguish those who have expertise in an area from those talking out their asses. Democracy is really vulnerable to sustained attack from misinformation organizations like the Discovery Institute.

    3. I disagree. When you are living in a democracy, you are the sovereign, and it is your moral duty to keep informed about politics, to a certain degree. Maybe if we had to pass some kind of exam every few years to decide who gets to vote, then this would not matter (and I wonder how election results would look like then*). But as things are now, it seriously annoys me to read that this would be knowledge of no consequence to a voter, or that it was just trivia.

      *) I have a suspicion. To cite John Stuart Mill, “I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it.”

  4. I actually fail to see the problem. Those results indicate, that whilst people may not know basic facts about current political debates, they at least want to find out about the fact and are using Google to do so. This is a much better state of affairs than apathy. If the top ten results had all been about mobile phones and American idol, that is when you should get worried.

    Number three is actually the one that worries me the most. Do people actually expect the computer or Google to know there name? It reminds me of the famous quote by the (very) early computer scientist Charles Babbage

    On two occasions I have been asked, – “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?” In one case a member of the Upper, and in the other a member of the Lower House put this question. I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

    1. Even that one is defensible, assuming one has a reasonably common name and is looking for a list of names. Not the best information retrieval strategy, perhaps, but I guess it’d work.

      On the other hand, I do wonder about the possible scenarios where searching Google for “what is the date today” would be preferable.

      1. Maybe they’re all Rip Van Winkle?

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