Do facts matter? Information and misinformation in American politics
WAS BARACK HUSSEIN OBAMA BORN OUTSIDE the United States, so that his presidency and all laws passed under it are unconstitutional? Are two out of every five Americans black? Did the crime rate rise during the first 15 years of the twenty-first century?
These are questions of factual information, to which there are correct answers--respectively, no, no, and no. Knowing the right answer to each question is important for making appropriate political choices and policy decisions. And yet in opinion polls, mainstream media, and general public discourse, many sensible and educated Americans have answered yes to each of these queries. They are wrong, and their views are likely to be associated with--and may even contribute to--consequential and problematic political actions or public policies.
Consider another set of questions: Do higher taxes reduce car owners' consumption of gasoline? Do more Americans vote in local elections, where their vote has a much greater impact, than in state or national elections, where their vote may be substantively trivial? Can intensive tutoring improve reading and math skills of inner-city students? These are slightly more complicated questions of fact because they involve causal links. But they, too, have correct, or at least generally consensual, answers--respectively, yes, no, and yes. Many Americans would concur with these answers and support the implied policy or political goals--and yet do not select the actions that would seem to follow directly from them.
These two sets of questions point to two problems for political discourse and action: the use of incorrect information and the failure to use correct information. These problems stand in opposition to the view of almost every serious thinker who has considered how to make democratic governance stable and effective. Sympathetic observers of democracy have consistently emphasized the need for a knowledgeable citizenry that uses relevant information to inform public choices. Let us allow Thomas Jefferson, in his "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge," to speak for the many:Even under the best forms [of government], those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that ... they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes. (1)
Much more recently, Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter made the same point in their authoritative study of the role of knowledge in a democracy:Factual knowledge about politics is a critical component of citizenship, one that is essential if citizens are to discern their real interests and take effective advantage of the civic opportunities afforded them.... Knowledge is a keystone to other civic requisites. In the absence of adequate information neither passion nor reason is likely to lead to decisions that reflect the real interests of the public....