Opinions of the Politically Informed

Via Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter (p.27), Scott Althaus reviews what a better informed U.S. public would think:

Fully informed opinion on foreign policy issues is relatively more interventionist than surveyed opinion but slightly more dovish when it comes to the use and maintenance of military power. … fully informed opinion …  hold[s] more progressive attributives on a wide variety of social policy topics, particularly those framed as legal issues. …. [is] more ideologically conservative on the scope and applications of government power. … [it] tends to be fiscally conservative when it comes to expanding domestic programs, to prefer free market solutions over government intervention to solve policy problems, to be less supportive of additional government intervention to protect the environment, and to prefer a smaller and less powerful federal government. 

Bryan elaborates:

If the public’s knowledge of politics magically increased, isolationism would be less popular.  … They want to be involved in world affairs, but see an greater downside of outright war.  … a more knowledgeable public would be more pro-choice, more supportive of  gay rights, and more opposed to prayer in school.  … Beliefs about welfare and affirmative action fit the same patterns: While political knowledge increases support for equal opportunity, it decreases support for equal results.

The method here is to survey people on political facts, political opinions, and demographics, then make a model predicting opinions from demographics and fact accuracy, and finally use that model to predict average opinion given high fact accuracy.   All else equal, shouldn’t learning this make you move toward these more informed opinions?

Added:  The specific questions, and average and informed opinions, are here.

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  • http://zbooks.blogspot.com Zubon

    Love Bryan Caplan though I do, it seems suspicious that the informed public is more libertarian on every point. Perhaps other things are hidden behind the ellipses, but the excerpts presented look too much like “all the smart people agree with me.” It seems like the sort of self-confirmation that would need very critical examination. Obviously, I need to get a copy of this book and read closely.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    This blog is making my opinions drift in precisely these directions…

    Interesting that political knowledge increases support for equal opportunity, it decreases support for equal rights. So our values can change through extra information.

  • Stuart Armstrong

    “all the smart people agree with me.”

    But smarter people are more likely to be libertarian, so Brian can probably draw this conclusion accurately. The more relevant bias is self-interest, not self-confirmation: those sort of policies benefit smart, international people with a diverse social network.

  • Michael Sullivan

    While political knowledge increases support for equal opportunity, it decreases support for equal rights.

    I do not understand your distinction. How are you defining “equal rights” and where are you seeing decreased support for it?

  • joe

    “a more knowledgeable public would be more pro-choice, more supportive of gay rights”

    Why do these two topics have anything to do with gaining more knowledge unless you are assuming that more knowledge means that people will abandon their religion… aren’t these the same people who reject science and rational arguments… to some, their little book gives them all the knowledge they need.

    It sounds very arrogant to basically claim that all people who don’t think like me are ignorant and they would change their views if they knew what I knew. Even intellectuals have differing views on many topics.

  • Dave

    One thing to note about this study is that most of the questions are phrased as “what government should do” rather than “what you would like to happen”. As such, one can explain the discrepancies not by positing that more informed people change their preferences, but rather that more informed people have greater doubts about the efficacy of government interventions. Given history, and particularly the history of the last forty or so years, such doubts can hardly be surprising.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/jhertzli/ Joseph Hertzlinger

    Okay. They told us what political questions they asked the uninformed and informed voters.

    I’d like to know what questions they used to judge who
    was most informed.

  • Doug S.

    A Republican is a Democrat who doesn’t know what the hell’s going on.” – Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

  • Jeremy McKibben

    As is the case with most blog posts that contain an argument based on an academic paper, the majority of the comments can be answered by cutting-and-pasting from the paper itself:

    Stuart: Althaus wanted to determine “the preferences that people would have if their information were perfect, including the knowledge they would have in retrospect if they had a chance to live out the consequences of each choice before actually making a decision.” His method for determining informed opinion was to use “multivariate regression to simulate how individual opinions might change if opinion givers were better informed about politics. ..Estimates of fully informed opinions are generated by assigning the preferences of the most highly informed members of a given demographic group to all members of that group, simultaneously taking into account the influence of a wide range of demographic variables.”

    The variables used were “education, income, age, partisanship, race, gender, marital status, occupation, religious affiliation, union membership, homeowner status, parental status, financial status, region, and type of community. …I also used receiving welfare benefits and receiving other benefits.”

    The basic assumption is that the members of each of the above groups have the same political interests, so the most informed members of each group should also be most capable of alligning their political interests with their opinions on specific policies. You can see that “smart, international people with a diverse social network” are not favored by this method or, more significantly, by the policies preferred by simulated opinion. Caplan may have made reference to this study because its conclusion favored policies in his own interest, but it’s hard to find fault if those policies are also in the interest of the majority of the country.

    Michael: Although I can’t be sure, I think Caplan meant “equality of outcome” rather than “equal rights.” In support of this Althaus notes that “on matters such as affirmative action and school integration, fully informed opinion tends to be slightly less supportive than actual opinion. At the same time, simulated opinion is slightly more progressive than actual opinion on the general need for government to guarantee equal opportunity and fair treatment to blacks.”

    In both cases you see a preference for equality of opportunity over equality of outcomes in the simulated opinion.

    Joseph: Here are some examples of content used in the information measures: “open-ended questions asking respondents to identify the job or political office held by a public figure; and closed-ended questions testing knowledge of constitutional powers, which party held majority status in both houses of Congress, and which party was more conservative than the other.” For more information about the scales used, see the article “Measuring Political Knowledge” by Delli Carpini and Keeter. A great deal of scholarly work went into making the questions valid and reliable indicators of nonpartisan political knowledge.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    I misquoted Bryan. He wrote “support for equal results”, not “support for equal rights”. I’ve fixed error now.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    You always wonder about correlation vs causation in these kinds of studies. Maybe certain political views make people more interested in seeking out detailed technical information that would help them score well in these tests of political knowledge.

    I have noticed in many areas that people with views far from the mainstream tend to have much more technical knowledge than average. Many Peak Oilers can recite chapter and verse about production levels and trends for every major oil field in the world. Believers in psychic powers can list off study after study and detail effect magnitudes and correlations. Conspiracy theorists who claim that the WTC towers were brought down by explosives will tell you all about the melting point of steel and how jet fuel burns under various atmospheric conditions. In fact I would almost say that detailed knowledge of a subject on the part of a lay person correlates positively with his belief in non-mainstream views. If we then assume that the conventional wisdom is right on most issues, it calls into question the basic methodology of this study.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Hal, you make an interesting observation. I suspect the trend you see is contrary to the usual trend, and makes only a small contribution to the overall trend.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Hal, conspiracy theorists who claim the WTC towers were brought down by explosives will tell you about the melting point of steel, but not that steel loses most of its strength at substantially lower temperatures, well within the reach of burning jet fuel.

    Knowledge by a layperson of a few technical details may correlate to non-mainstream false beliefs, because of selective quoting by popular arguers.

    Knowledge by a non-layperson of a lot of technical details would be expected to correlate to non-mainstream true beliefs, because you’ve got to have a heck of a lot of knowledge to stare down the mainstream and win.

    They, in turn, will quote some of these details to layfolk when arguing the belief, and again the layperson will end up with knowledge of a few technical details.

    I think the correlation you see is because non-mainstream beliefs have to be argued, truly or falsely, and the arguer will try to recruit scientific facts, selectively or unselectively.

    But knowing a lot of technical details should never actually screw you over, unless you are doing something else very wrong. To paraphrase Asimov: I do not fear knowledge, I fear the lack of it.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    There are a couple of possible reasons why you might see what I described. In many cases, only an extreme degree of interest in an obscure topic would motivate someone to learn many details about it. Belief in conspiracies and hidden information can generate such interest. Also, people unfortunately tend to filter information selectively and only accept that which confirms their pre-established beliefs. Hence learning all this new information won’t necessarily change their minds.

    If someone knows all about the Vince Foster suicide, every detail of the park rangers’ schedules, every anomaly in the testimony and evidence, chances are he’s a conspiracy theorist who is obsessed with the topic. Likewise for the Kennedy assassination – chances are the more a lay person knows about it, the more likely he learned that much in furtherance of his conspiracy theory. And the same for WTC. The average person knows nothing and cares nothing about these details. Most people who do care are the ones who are obsessed with them. A few debunkers may have a similar degree of knowledge but debunking is a rather thankless and unrewarding task. Belief in conspiracies seems to be very satisfying for certain people and I see them as making up the majority of knowledgeable laypeople in these areas.

  • Jeremy McKibben

    Hal, the questions on the political information scale didn’t contain the kind of esoteric knowledge you’re talking about. They were more general, including such things as “identifying which branch of the federal government was responsible for deciding the constitutionality of laws… identifying which was the more conservative party.. identifying the relative ideological locations of Republicans and Democrats…”

    They’re the kinds of questions you’d know the answer to if you read the newspaper at least once a week. I don’t see conspiracy theorists being unfairly favored.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    That’s a good point, Jeremy, my examples are exaggerated compared to the kinds of questions we are talking about here. They show the phenomenon most clearly, but nevertheless I could see the same effect happening to a lesser degree on more prosaic issues.

    A related effect is what we might call “rational delegation of opinion”. Many voters choose to delegate their decisions on specific issues to political parties or ideological groups. They make a once and for all decision that a given party is a good match to their values, and follow that party’s recommendations subsequently on particular issues. They will vote the party slate of candidates and support whatever policy positions the party takes.

    This can be seen as a practical example of Robin’s description of meta-majoritarianism. It is a justifiably rational way of dealing with a complex world. But the effect is that such people will look ignorant when asked the kinds of questions in this survey.

    Those who for whatever reason cannot or choose not to engage in this kind of delegation will show up in the survey as being more informed. But we should not conclude that rationally ignorant voters would switch their positions to match those of the more informed, if they acquired more information. I imagine that rational delegation is more common among people in the broad middle of the road on political issues. In my experience, extremists are more likely to avoid delegation and take the time to educate themselves in the details of policy questions.

    In fact, based on my casual observations I would predict a positive correlation between degree of knowledge and political extremism. I would expect a graph of knowledge against position on the political spectrum to be bimodal, with higher knowledge at both left and right ends compared to the broad mass of voters in the center. I’d be curious whether Caplan’s book discusses this question.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/halfinney/ Hal Finney

    To follow up, I did a search on scholar.google.com for “extremism political knowledge” and found this article on the 2nd page of results:

    The Relationship Between Ideology, Information and Voting Behavior

    Abstract: “The question of voter sophistication is important in understanding voter and candidate behavior in mass elections. We develop an index of voter information – based on perceptual data – and find that it is significantly related to ideological extremism and voting behavior. Individuals with a high level of information tend to be more extreme than those with more levels and are much more likely to vote.”

    I can’t easily read the whole article but it sounds consistent with the phenomenon I described. Again, we can’t distinguish the direction of causation here, but it seems unlikely that gaining more information can justify moving in both extremist directions. So I am inclined to think it is the other way around, that ideological extremists are driven to acquire more information.

  • Imdman

    What do you think of this research claiming bias against Christians? My immediate response was, “is it bias?” or is it informed opinion?