Democracy presumes civic wisdom. When voters grasp truth, when facts prevail over misinformation, prudence prevails. When the electorate understands what actually advances (and threatens) human flourishing, it can inaugurate sensible policies and elect benevolent leaders. The collective wisdom of the cognizant is more astute than an autocrat’s whims.
Alas, as the late Hans Rosling amply documents in Factfulness, too often the crowd is unwise. Ignorance reigns. Even with this forewarning, consider:
- What percent of the world’s 1-year-olds have had a vaccination?
- What percent of humanity lives in extreme poverty (<$2/day)?
- What percent of humanity is literate (able to read and write)?
The factual answers—86 percent, 9 percent, and 86 percent, respectively—differ radically from Americans’ perceptions. Their vaccination estimate: 35 percent. And though extreme poverty has plummeted and literacy has soared, most don’t know that. More than people suppose, world health, education, and prosperity have improved (as Steven Pinker further documents in Enlightenment Now).
Such public ignorance—compounded by the overconfidence phenomenon (people’s tendency to be more confident than correct)—often undermines civic wisdom. When year after year 7 in 10 adults tell Gallup there has been more crime than in the prior year—despite plummeting violent and property crime rates—then fear-mongering politicians may triumph. Our ignorance matters when horrific but infinitesimally rare incidents of domestic terrorism, school shootings, and air crashes hijack our consciousness. We and our children will not only disproportionately fear the wrong things, we will then risk more lives by extreme public spending to avoid these frightening things—to, say, block the “vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers” supposedly pouring across our southern border, rather than to mitigate climate change and more extreme weather.
In the aftermath of anti-immigrant fear-stoking (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”), many people do fear immigrants. Americans are, reports Gallup, “five times more likely to say immigrants make [crime] worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively).” Roused by anecdotes of vicious immigrant crime, “Build the wall!” becomes a rallying cry—despite, as the conservative Cato Institute freshly documents, a lower crime rate among immigrants than among native-born Americans.
And what do you think: Is eating genetically modified (GM) food safe? “Yes,” say 37 percent of U.S. adults and 88 percent of American Association for the Advancement of Science members. Moreover, the people most opposed to GM foods are (according to a new study) those who are most ignorant about them.
As the famed Dunning-Kruger effect reminds us, ignorance and incompetence can, ironically, feed overconfidence. Ignorant of my ignorance—and thus prone to a smug overconfidence—I am blissfully unaware of all the possible Scrabble words I fail to see . . . which enables me to think myself verbally adept. We are, as Daniel Kahneman has said, often “blind to our blindness.”
The result is sometimes a theater of the absurd. A December 2015 Public Policy Polling survey asked Donald Trump supporters if they favored or opposed bombing Agrabah. Among the half with an opinion, there was 4 to 1 support (41 percent to 9 percent) for dropping bombs on Agrabah . . . the fictional country from Aladdin.
But ignorance needn’t be permanent. Education can train us to recognize how errors and biases creep into our thinking. Education also makes us less gullible—less vulnerable to belief in conspiracy theories. Teach people to think critically—with a mix of open-minded curiosity, evidence-seeking skepticism, and intellectual humility—and they will think . . . and vote . . . smarter. Ignorance matters. But education works.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life visit TalkPsych.com.)