May 14 2015

Why Is the Public So Wrong?

I had hoped that the advent of the internet would have a positive effect on public access to information, and perhaps it has. The problem is that it also facilitates access to misinformation. I also wonder to what extent people are availing themselves of this easy access to information (or are they just watching cat videos?).

I now frequently have the experience of being in a discussion with someone and arriving at a disagreement over a specific fact. Pre-internet we would not be able to resolve the difference, we would agree to look it up later, and usually would never do so. Now we can whip our our smartphones and within a minute or two find references to the correct fact.

Despite this there remains a disturbing gap between public perception and reality on many important issues. I discussed previously the recent survey showing significant differences between public attitudes towards certain scientific issues and the attitudes of science. The biggest difference was for the statement that it is, “safe to eat genetically modified food.” While 88% of scientists agreed with this statement, only 37% of the public did.

The gap is not limited to scientific issues, but spans the spectrum of civil issues as well. For example, 68% of Americans believe crime is worsening nationally, and 48% believe it is worsening locally, while crime has been steadily decreasing for the last two decades.

The Ipsos Mori social research institute has been conducting surveys of public opinion in various countries. (As an interesting aside, the internet tells me that the two terms are abbreviations and the combination the result of a merger, yet in latin “ipsos mori” means “dead themselves.” I wonder to what extent that was intentional.) Out of 14 countries surveyed, the US ranked 13th in terms of public opinion accuracy. Sweden ranked highest, while the UK ranked 5th, and Italy came in last. For brevity I will give only the statistics for the US, and you can view the article for other countries.

When asked what percentage of the population is Muslim the average answer was 15% when the reality is 1%. How many people are Christian: average answer 56%, reality 78%. How many people of working age are out of work and seeking a job: average answer 32%, reality 6% (at the time of the survey). That one seems strange. Did people really think the unemployment rate was 32% (that was average, which means some people thought it was higher)?  During the great depression the unemployment rate peaked at 25%.  What percentage of girls between 15 and 19 years old will give birth: average guess 24%, reality 3%.

These are not small differences. You will also find that for just about every advocacy group, one of the primary hurdles they face is how wrong public knowledge is about their issue.

The interesting question is – why are so many people so misinformed about the facts?  Several factors are commonly raised as possible explanations.

There is a common theme in the direction of wrongness in many of the issues, and that might provide a clue. The public seems to think that problems are worse than they are, that threats are greater than they are, and that they are in more of a minority (or less of a majority) than they are. While this may partly reflect underlying psychological factors, two groups are also fingered for blame – politicians and the media.

Politicians will often cherry pick or spin statistics in order to sway public opinion. They will exaggerate threats and fears because it serves their politics.

The media fails on at least two grounds. First is sensationalism – disproportionately showcasing violent crimes, for example, and giving the public a distorted view of reality. The media is also to blame for what they are not doing: putting stories into context by providing the public with relevant statistics.

The education system also is frequently mentioned, for failing to properly educate the public about statistical and scientific literacy.

There are, however, also a number of psychological factors that would likely contribute to false beliefs. Chief among them is confirmation bias, the tendency to notice, accept, and remember information which confirms your existing narrative. The fact that we have narratives also is a huge factor. There is a tendency to latch onto themes and narratives, and then use facts to support those narratives, rather than to alter our narratives based on the facts. It is therefore no surprise that facts which have political implications have been so distorted to fit political narratives.


Clearly we’re doing it wrong. We live in a democracy (OK, a mixture of a democracy and a republic, but you get the idea) where the public has significant political power and yet that public is largely misinformed about reality, even basic statistical facts.

We can’t change basic human psychology, although knowledge of that psychology can help us transcend it with logic and critical thinking skills. As a society we can strive toward some other basic fixes as well.

The educational system needs greater emphasis on actual critical thinking skills, including basic principles of skepticism and scientific literacy.

We need to hold our politicians more accountable for truth and transparency, and not reward them for telling appealing narratives.

We also need to hold the media to a much higher standard. Market forces have apparently blurred the lines between news and entertainment. It would be great if we could reverse that trend and demand higher quality from our news outlets.

Also we need to pay a great deal of attention to the internet and social media. These are powerful tools for information distribution, and they are being exploited for commercial and ideological misinformation. There is also a great deal of high quality information available, but it seems to be buried under an avalanche of nonsense and spin. Academics, experts, and institutions need to invest more time and effort into spreading accurate information online to counter this trend. There are likely also many other things that would help – we need creative solutions.

The current massive public misinformation is a huge source of inefficiency. It’s worth trying to fix it.

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