The perils of inaccurate public perceptions

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The British survey research firm Ipsos MORI has published an interesting issue of its journal Understanding Society, focused on "The Perils of Perception" (available for free). The articles consider the dangers of inaccurate public perceptions of political, scientific, and other issues.

If you're at all interested in the subject of public ignorance and its potential dangers, you may want to take a look at this publication. Each of the contributions addresses an important aspect of widespread public misperceptions. For example, Darrell Bricker's article focuses on the mismatch between public perceptions of risks to health and safety and the reality. In most countries, the public systematically overestimates the threat posed by external dangers—such as epidemics of contagious diseases and violent crime—while often underestimating risks caused by poor personal choices (such as heart attacks and diseases caused by poor diet and health habits). Chiara Ferrari and David Ahlin provide interesting case studies of Italy and Sweden, respectively the lowest and highest-scoring countries in Ipsos MORI's recent international survey of political knowledge (though, as Ahlin notes, Swedish political knowledge levels, while impressive in relative terms, are still dubious in an absolute sense, particularly on some hot-button issues such as immigration).

To my mind, the most interesting article here may be Mark Earls' contribution on "borrowed opinions"—the many situations where we base our perceptions of political and scientific issues on the views others who we hope are more knowledgeable than ourselves. For most of us, the vast majority of what we know about public policy and science is not based on our own expertise and personal experience, but on what we learn from third-party sources, such as the media, pundits, academics, and other real and supposed experts. Even if you believe you are an independent thinker who never defers to the views of others without carefully checking their validity, there's a good chance that you're not as completely independent and objective as you think.

For reasons I have discussed here and here, figuring out which experts to defer to on which issues is a much more difficult task than many of us might think. And, unfortunately, most voters don't make much effort to assess the available "opinion leaders" in any objective way, but instead gravitate towards those who are most entertaining and most likely to reinforce their preexisting views. Earls offers a good discussion of both the benefits and pitfalls of "borrowing" opinions from others.

My own contribution to the issue focuses on the dangers of widespread political ignorance. It explains why political ignorance is a serious problem in many countries around the world, and why the problem is so persistent and so difficult to overcome. My analysis builds on the more US-focused discussion of political ignorance in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance.