Ignorance is inevitable

SchafherdeInKoeln

British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows“, the Independent screamed today. The study, from the Royal Statistical Society, is very interesting and demonstrates some of the major misperceptions that the British public has about Britain.

Two of the findings in particular stood out for me. The average person estimates that 36% of the population is aged 65 or over, whereas the real figure is 16%. Despite this, many people appear to vastly underestimate the amount of public money spent on pensions.

This suggests that not only are people’s perceptions of life in the UK wrong, they are not even consistent. It is tempting to conclude that not only are people wrong, they also have no interest in being right.

Much of the commentary I have seen surrounding this survey has tended to blame the media. Other remarks suggest that this is a peculiarly British problem.

But woeful misperception is a global, human phenomenon, and is nothing new. For a while, it has been known that the public’s estimates about the world bear almost no relation to reality. This is partly to do with cognitive biases, people’s inability to estimate probabilities, and a lack of information.

You might say that a lack of information could be easily solved by, say, better education, or a more informative media. But the problem with information is that there is way, way too much of it. No-one could possibly know everything about anything.

When it comes to society, it feels like we are expected to know everything about everything. We live in a democracy, and it’s meant to be our democratic duty to keep up with current affairs and cast our vote in an informed manner. But if we couldn’t possibly have all the knowledge we require.

Take the wide variety of subjects covered by the Royal Statistical Society’s survey:

  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Crime
  • Public expenditure
  • Demographics
  • Immigration
  • Voting behaviour

Even a full-time policy wonk would struggle to be an expert in all of these areas, never mind Joe Public. And even experts suffer from biases. They are only human.

When I read this about this study, I was immediately reminded of rational irrationality. I learnt about the concept in Bryan Caplan’s excellent book The Myth of the Rational Voter.

Rational irrationality comes about because people can have preferences over beliefs. For instance, people like their ideological stances, and the cost of keeping those stances is almost zero.

Meanwhile, the costs of getting information can be huge simply because there is so much of it. In the cost–benefit analysis we subconsciously go through, it is easy to settle for believing that we are already right and there is no need to go through the labour- and time-intensive process of learning more.

Smug responses about the British public’s ignorance in the wake of the Royal Statistical Society’s survey are missing the main lesson to be learnt from it. It is not that this so people are stupid. It is that we are all ignorant, no matter how well-informed we like to think we are.

I am sure almost everyone smugly pointing and laughing at the survey results would also have got many of the questions wrong. I like to think I’m smart and well-informed, but I also know that I would have got some of these questions wrong.

I have a degree in economics and politics. It was during those studies that I came to learn about rational irrationality. It was quite something to delve into a subject expecting to become knowledgeable, and instead concluding that not only was I not knowledgeable, but that I never would be.

This is a big part of the reason why I stopped writing about politics — because I know I am ignorant. Moreover, I know that most other people are ignorant too. Most people who write as though they know what they are talking about are having you on.

All of which makes me wonder why I have spent the past two hours writing this.

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