The Volokh Conspiracy

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Political Ignorance

Are Public Ignorance and Misinformation Getting Worse?

The answer, as Tyler Cowen and Matthew Yglesias, argue, is probably not. But political ignorance is still a serious problem.

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Many believe that political ignorance and misinformation have gotten worse in recent years, with the rise of the internet and social media, and its exploitation by populist political movements, conspiracy theorists, and others. But evidence supporting the idea that the public is more ignorant and more prone to misinformation today than in earlier eras is actually quite weak.

Recent articles by libertarian-leaning economist Tyler Cowen and liberal political commentator Matthew Yglesias provide helpful overviews of much of the available evidence on this. On the whole, they are right to conclude that these problems haven't gotten significantly worse in recent years than was true in the past. But that doesn't mean we can breathe a sigh of relief about public ignorance and misinformation. Rather, we should understand that political ignorance and biased evaluation of information have been serious problems all along - even when pundits and academics were less focused on them than today.

Cowen pushes back on the idea that the Covid era has seen an unusually great degree of misinformation by reminding us of past history when things were as bad or worse:

It's hard to measure misinformation over time. But the premise that there was ever a golden age of accurate information, especially about public health, is suspect.

I just turned 60, so my youth is now fairly distant. Still, I can recall debates about smoking: not so much whether it was bad for you — that science was established, and the federal government had already initiated an anti-smoking campaign — but whether it was really all that bad. And I'm not talking about the occasional cigarette, but one or two packs a day. The scientific knowledge wasn't nearly as socially salient as it is today, and there were many millions more smokers. That meant social opinion was invariably somewhat split….

Overall, I am genuinely unsure that misinformation about public health has become worse in my lifetime. My uncertainty is only strengthened when I do a reality check of how much general public misinformation there has been over the last six decades. A lot of experts and members of the public used to think the economy of the Soviet Union was just fine. They thought the Vietnam War was OK. They saw Nixon's wage and price controls as justified.

Cowen's list of examples can easily be extended. For example, there is a long history of anti-vaxxerism on both left and right. Yglesias notes some examples in his article.

Moving beyond public health, voter ignorance and misinformation have been serious problems for as long democracy has existed, all the way back to ancient Greece. Trump's "Big Lie" about the 2020 election is a notable and dangerous example of the power of misinformation today. But it is no worse than widespread belief in the "stab in the back" myth of World War I, which played a major role in the Nazis' rise to power during the Weimar Republic.

More generally, fascism and communism both achieved widespread popularity in the age of what we now consider traditional print and broadcast media; and advocates of both effectively exploited public ignorance in a variety of ways. Nothing that has happened in the age of Twitter and Facebook has - so far, at least - been anywhere near that bad.

Yglesias goes over some evidence indicating that political knowledge levels have remained roughly stable over the last two to three decades. He also points out (correctly) that many believers in conspiracy theories actually follow political issues more closely than most, and thus may in some ways be better-informed than others. But he goes wrong in arguing that people are likely actually better-informed than in the past, and that increasing political knowledge would do little good, because it cannot resolve difficult policy issues.

It is true, as Yglesias notes, that the internet has made accurate information on many issues more easily available than ever. But most voters have made little or no effort to take advantage of that. As Yglesias himself concedes elsewhere in the article, public knowledge of basic facts about politics has changed very little in recent decades, remaining at stably low levels. Most of the public continues to be ignorant even about very simple things, like the structure of government, how the federal government spends its money, and much else, besides.

Yglesias is right to emphasize that there are some difficult issues where increasing public knowledge may not do much to improve policy, because even the most knowledgeable of experts are deeply divided on what to do. But it is also the case that there are important issues where the evidence is strongly on one side or another, and there is considerable cross-ideological agreement among experts. Examples include exclusionary zoning (where evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that cutting back would greatly increase economic growth and expand opportunity for the poor), and immigration - where it similarly supports the position that greatly expanded immigration would have huge benefits, including for natives.

In both areas, the potential gains are huge and there is broad expert agreement on that point. And, on both, public ignorance is one of the main obstacles to beneficial change. Most of the public is either unaware of the huge gains that can be achieved, or  (in some cases) actually believes that liberalization would be harmful (e.g. - falsely believing that immigration increases crime rates, or that dropping zoning restrictions would only benefit rich gentrifiers).

I hasten to add that there is not an expert consensus on going as far with these issues as I would (all the way to near-total abolition of zoning, and a presumption in favor of open borders immigration policy). But there is broad expert agreement on the direction of change - the need to significantly liberalize both zoning restrictions and barriers to migration - even if there is much less consensus on the optimal place to stop. To his credit, Yglesias himself has done much to focus attention on both issues, including in his recent book One Billion Americans. But he overlooks the role of public ignorance in making the situation much worse than would otherwise be the case.

And these are far from the only issues where public ignorance causes serious trouble. Other examples include our looming fiscal crisis (where most of the public doesn't understand where federal money goes), free trade (where public opinion often backs protectionist policies at odds with centuries of evidence and basic economic theory), and much else.

We can think of such issues as "low-hanging fruit" where policy can be greatly improved if only public ignorance were not such a serious problem. Even if there would still be disagreement over the ideal policy in these areas, we could at least eliminate a lot of currently popular options that cause great harm.

Yglesias is also only partly right in suggesting that knowledgeable voters aren't necessarily better, because conspiracy-mongers are often highly knowledgeable, in a sense. It is true that such people know a lot, in the sense of learning large amounts of facts. But they also tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of political information. The problem of political ignorance actually has two dimensions: what scholars call "rational ignorance" and "rational irrationality." I recently summarized these dynamics and their relationship to conspiracy theories here:

Because there is so little chance that any one vote will make a difference to the outcome of an election, most people are "rationally ignorant" about politics and government policy. They spend little time seeking out relevant information, and are often ignorant of even basic facts about the political system They thus underestimate the extreme difficulty of planning, coordinating, and covering up large-scale conspiracies. Birtherism, trutherism, and Covid conspiracy theories are all more prevalent among people with relatively low levels of education and political knowledge. The less you know about government, the easier it is to believe that events are controlled by a shadowy cabal of ultra-competent evil-doers who can skillfully cover up their misdeeds.

But the popularity of conspiracy theories is also boosted by partisan and ideological bias. In assessing political information, most people act not as objective truth-seekers, but as "political fans" who tend to overvalue any claims that cohere with their preexisting views, and downplay or ignore any that cut against them. Much like sports fans, who tend to be biased in favor of their preferred team and against its rivals, political fans are highly biased in favor of their preferred party and ideology, and against its opponents.

Most conspiracy-mongers are extreme examples of "political fans," who learn about politics more for the purpose of enhancing their fan experience, than to get at the truth. Such fan behavior is often rational; given the low odds of any one vote making a difference, many of those who seek out political knowledge do so for reasons other than figuring out the truth. And when truth-seeking isn't the goal, it is perfectly rational to be highly biased in your evaluation of information - a phenomenon economist Bryan Caplan dubbed "rational irrationality."

Most successful politicians are well aware of the problems of ignorance and irrationality, and work hard to exploit it. Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election owed much to his exploitation of public ignorance and bias on immigration and trade. But more conventional politicians, such as Barack Obama, also often exploit ignorance for their benefit. As I have stressed many times (most recently here), political ignorance and biased evaluation of evidence are not limited to one side of the political spectrum, or to the supporters of a few especially egregious politicians. They systematically reduce the quality of  government all round, on both left and right.

After controlling for other relevant variables, such as partisanship, ideology, race, income, and others, scholars such as Caplan and Scott Althaus find large differences in policy views between more knowledgeable voters and more ignorant ones. Controlling for factors like partisanship and ideology suggests that much of this difference reflects real effects of increased knowledge, not cognitive biases.

The fact that the problems of ignorance and bias are not new, and may not be much worse now than in the past, is no reason to discount them. Moreover, in two significant respects, things are worse than in the past. First, the growing size, scope, and complexity of government increases the knowledge burden on voters, and expands the range of issues on which public ignorance could have a negative impact. I discuss this in more detail in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance. Second, people may be more susceptible to bias in the evaluation of information in periods of high partisan polarization, like the present.

I do not mean to suggest that increased political knowledge is always good. In Chapter 2 of my book, I discuss some unusual scenarios where it actually causes harm. Examples include situations where increased knowledge enables people with evil values to accomplish their nefarious ends more fully, or when ignorance on one issue happens to offset the potentially harmful effects of ignorance on another. But, on the whole, such cases are relatively unusual exceptions that prove the rule.

In sum, there is good reason to worry about public ignorance and its influence even if the problem isn't significantly worse than in the past. The harder question is what to do about it.

That difficult subject must be left for another time. But, for those interested, I have written about it in detail in many previous writings, including my book, and this recent article in National Affairs. There is, of course, also a large literature on it by other scholars, many of whom advocate very different approaches from mine.

UPDATE: I made some related points in a 2019 post on "Why the Demand for Fake News is a Far More Serious Problem than the Supply."

 

 

 

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  1. The major media companies are the biggest purveyors of misinformation in today's marketplace of ideas. There hasn't been a truthful news report on most of them since about 2008. Instead, they now stick to selling a party line, usually heavily Communist, while always trying to sell the notions that (1) all dissenting media are "misinformation" and should be outlawed, and (2) there is always a "crisis" or "emergency" that makes it necessary for everyone to get on board with the official agenda.

    The best thing you can do to reduce the spread of misinformation is to burn your television set.

    1. Can you define "covid conspiracies" for me? Most of the alleged orginal "conspiracies", and I'm not talking about vaccines having 5g Yada, Yada, Yada, has turned out to be relatively true. I.E. Lab leak, vaccine passports, etc.

      Furthermore, claiming one is an "anti-vaxxer" is disheartening too because a) these vaccines had clinical trials shortened, and improper followup on AE's. They were unblinded, and AE's have skyrocketed in the last 12 months in the vers database. So am I skeptical of a new product based on limited data and seems to be having issues with adverse events. Your damn right I am. I've never turned down vaccines for other ailments that pose an actual risk. However, the covid risk is greatly exaggerated, and was from the start. Finally, as ivermeta shows, early treatments have been surpressed. Why? You tell me. I'm not offering up reasons, but it is suspect. This article spend a little too much time trying apparently I'll defining what is true and what is dogma parroted as truth. I'm neither low educated, nor partisan, but the lack of definition here on what constitutes as covid "conspiracy" is bothersome. Considering most of the "conspiracies" have largely with the passage of time shown to be more correct than not. While the premise of misinformation being relatively static with respect to time, which I generally agree with due to a lack of recency bias, the authors should spend more time clarifying what they call misinformation.

      1. Sigh. That's not how VAERS works.

        1. Then explain it to a validation engineer in the pharma space, o wise one. Jesus, I swear you people can't be rational for one minute. If you don't understand the number of adverse events are up significantly in the last year, and c19 mRNA events make up some 50% of all events in the last year, but sure, I don't know how it works. You clearly do by your very elaborate, in depth argument. Thanks.

          1. Futher, I was going off memory, and I double checked the numbers. 2020 had 50k AE's, and 2021 had well over 700k. Now if you don't think a 15x spike in all adverse events is a problem, when most drugs get pulled over a few as a few thousand AE's, then you really know nothing about the industry. So please don't water down the discussion with your fact less parroting of media sources who are just as dense.

            1. It's hard to believe that someone who claims to be an "engineer" doesn't understand that if there are hundreds of millions more vaccines administered in a year than the year before that there will be more reports related to those vaccinations.

              But of course there is not a 15x spike in "adverse events." There is a 15x spike (assuming your numbers are correct, which I haven't checked) in reports. VAERS is an unaudited, unverified open system; anyone can put anything into the database.

              Not only are there no controls to keep people honest, but by design, there is nothing about them that says that there is any causal relationship. It is not "submit a report if you think a vaccine caused a particular AE." It's "submit a report if certain AE happened after a vaccination, regardless of whether the reporter thinks the vaccine caused the AE."

              If you actually knew anything about the industry, rather than being an Internet kook, you'd know that VAERS is not intended to establish anything about vaccines. It is intended only to suggest lines of inquiry.

    2. Sorry, not sure why this was posted in response to you. It was supposed to be to the article.

    3. Exactly! City newspapers reported news local and regional and national Until they didn't. I check 5 SWFL newspapers online every morning.
      Same front page - common ownership.
      Same USA Today bias on what is and what is not reported.
      Every day a negative article on Gov. DeSantis.
      There are no professional reporters only digesters of USA Today propaganda.
      There are no editors reviewing any local nor national stories for obvious blank spots. Many articles end with no ending.
      No medical, legal nor scientific article has any coherence.
      In reports of murders, rapes, shootings, felonies, serious crimes, is it newsworthy to report whether the accused is a resident, non resident alien, illegal? This reporting ceased many years ago. No more gangs, illegals, repeat felons, non citizens. How does this help the 98% of minority residents who live in peace?

    4. The very fact you say "heavily communist" means you're basically the person they're talking about in the article. jfc

      1. Wtf are you talking about?

  2. You are too optimistic in thinking bad policies are the result of ignorance. As an example, zoning restrictions may be bad for society generally, but they are good for those in neighborhoods that could be affected by loosening zoning. My neighborhood suffered when zoning was eased to allow a private school, which has jammed the local streets at times and led to increased traffic and thus inconvenience. Sure - it's a benefit for the city as a whole, but a pain for me personally and my neighbors.

  3. I'm not sure why we need a new word for bullshit, but it certainly has been with us forever.

    When I was in college I was taught, as fact, in several classes that the oil companies had bought and buried a patent for an extremely high-milage carburetor. An urban legend like that can be fact-checked nowadays in a matter of seconds, but prior to the internet it was practically impossible.

    1. "An urban legend like that can be fact-checked nowadays in a matter of seconds, but prior to the internet it was practically impossible."

      You can try to fact check things in a matter of seconds, but the truth is, 'fact checks' are as subject to being misinformation as anything else. At many sites they've devolved into "opinion" checking, or "implication" checking, if they ever started out as anything else.

      1. Well, poor choice of words. This particular urban legend can be debunked in a matter of seconds.

        But generally, I agree that "fact check" is just a misleading way of presenting a contrary opinion, and assuming a false air of authority.

        "Fact checkers say..." rivals "experts say..." as a terrible way of supporting a claim.

        1. Generally, unless it's a really stupid claim, it takes a bit of work to confirm that it's false, and much of the time you just arrive at "not proven".

          1. Much less work than before the internet.

      2. Your mistake is conflating professional "fact checkers" with the process of yourself checking the facts. There is no need to rely on the former.

    2. the oil companies had bought and buried a patent for an extremely high-milage carburetor

      Ah, the 300mpg carburetor of the 1970s. That was almost as fun as the wave of perpetual-motion style "free energy" hucksters in the 1990s.

      History never repeats itself, but it rhymes.

  4. It's my impression that "misinformation" and "ignorance" are being hyped these days, because they're the excuse of the day for imposing a system of censorship, under the theory that 'error has no rights'.

    The idea is that propagating wrongthink is a positive wrong, akin to a tort, and thus not constitutionally protected, or at the least deserving of no consideration at all by any platform not obviously bound to respect the 1st amendment.

  5. I’m 64 and I don’t ever remember anyone being “the science is unclear” about smoking. Of course that didn’t stop people from being addicted. “Why do I smoke?” my uncle told me. “Because I’m a goddamn fool!”

    Visiting a poor Latin American country recently, my friend was shocked when I told him 1 out of 5 Americans has come down with Covid, and 1 out of 350 has died. It’s much lower in his country.

    1. Well, of course it's going to be lower, if you're too poor to do tests on people who are asymptomatic, when you're dealing with a disease that IS asymptomatic much of the time.

  6. "Trump's "Big Lie" about the 2020 election is a notable and dangerous example of the power of misinformation today. But it is no worse than widespread belief in the "stab in the back" myth of World War I, which played a major role in the Nazis' rise to power during the Weimar Republic."

    Wait a minute, are you saying Trump is *not* worse than Nazis?

    That's the sort of pro-Trump bias which proves you've sold out to the extreme right.

    /sarc (which I hope is unnecessary)

  7. One way to bypass political bullshit.
    Read the parties platform.
    I read the democratic platform, so nothing that has happened since they took over has been a surprise.
    And what is coming will not be a surprise either.

    1. I'm with you; I'd have Democrats telling me I was spouting nonsense about Biden's positions, when all you had to do was visit his campaign website to see what he'd said he was going to do.

      And for better or worse, (Worse, I think!) he's tried to act on it.

  8. Maybe the bigger issue than ignorance is whether people are aware of their own ignorance and behave with appropriate restraint.

    Plenty of people in my mother's generation who had little formal education and admitted it. They didn't vote haphazardly, though. They ignored policy they didn't know anything about, but looked very seriously for the personal traits they wanted in a leader, then voted accordingly trusting that person would make the right decisions. They would not have presumed to have an opinion on a vaccine or trade policy.

    I suspect lot of better informed people are really doing the same thing, and better knowledge would not have as much benefit as Dr. Somin thinks. Arguments over the "facts" are often really about fundamental value differences, and even the very uneducated aren't mistaken about their own values.

  9. "But it is no worse than widespread belief in the "stab in the back" myth of World War I, which played a major role in the Nazis' rise to power during the Weimar Republic."

    Well, that is comforting to know, Ilya, although, since you're Jewish (I'm not) I'm not sure why you went there. I'm guessing you didn't run that one past Josh Blackman. You guys must have lots to talk about.

  10. "Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 election owed much to his exploitation of public ignorance and bias on immigration and trade."

    Where by "public ignorance and bias" you mean disagreeing with you about the proper aims of government, of course, or about the relative importance of economic efficiency vs resilience against supply chain disruptions.

    It's likely that his defeat in 2020 owed much to the Democrats' 'Russian collusion' fraud, too; Democrats are not lacking in big lies.

    1. And by "Democrats' Russian collusion fraud" you mean "Trump's Russian collusion." But setting aside that you still don't know any of the facts about which you are so confident, it's not "likely" in the slightest that something that was no longer a topic of meaningful conversation after the Mueller report declined to recommend indictment — 18 months before the election — had anything at all to do with the always-unpopular Trump presiding over a pandemic and a recession losing an election.

      1. "had anything at all to do with the always-unpopular Trump presiding over a pandemic and a recession losing an election"
        I'm not sure what you mean by that David.
        Trump had the golden opportunity with COVID. Just stick the MDs out in front (that was hard for him), send lots to money to Pharma (that was easy for him), and keep his mouth shut (that was impossible for him)

        1. I mean that Occam's Razor suggests that the country's condition at the time of the election presumptively had more to do with Trump's defeat than things that had happened earlier. That Trump could have handled the pandemic well and gotten a boost doesn't change the fact that he didn't in fact do that.

          1. Trump actually DID handle the pandemic fairly well. He beat down the regulatory agencies enough to get a vaccine available in record time, for instance, and I don't think a Democratic administration would have done that.

            Sure, he could have done some things better, like firing Fauci, or refilling our PPE stocks that Obama had emptied. And he really needed to stop blue skying in public, that's a bad habit.

            But what did him in was the state level lockdowns tanking the economy, and that wasn't any of his doing.

            1. Sure, he could have done some things better,

              Or not telling people to inject bleach.

                1. You just said above not to trust "fact checkers" and now you're linking us to a "fact check"?

          2. Nice partisanship on display. Please elaborate as to what could have been done better? I hate trump, but don't play this ignorant "go teams" game.

    2. Ignore the haters, Brett. Like you and every other person with a brain, I've had it up to here with that damn Russia Hoax.

      1. It wouldn't, if Biden or Trump had any balls.

      2. Thank you for sharing one of Glenn's best pieces.

        1. Pretty sure it's parody. Sadly it's a plausible GG product.

  11. Prof. Somin neglects to mention the "Big Lie" that tore this country apart for four years, the Russia-collusion hoax, perhaps because he was busy pushing it. The Trump-haters decided that he was such a unique threat that, like Thomas More's son-in-law before them, they decided they would enthusiastically steamroll every law and modicum of due process to get at their devil.

    Lying to get a warrant to spy on a rival politician? Eh. Raiding his attorney's office, seizing documents, and obtaining his testimony against his client? Attorney-client privilege is so passé. A fat CIA colonel engineering a ludicrous impeachment? Our hero! Most "libertarians", including those on this site, showed the true depth of their principles throughout,

    The John Birch Society believed that President Eisenhower was a Russian agent - not just that he was too soft or deferential toward the Soviet Union - but a literal agent on Stalin's payroll. Obviously, this theory never gained much traction, but it likely would have if every major news outlet had decided to push it incessantly.

    The perpetrators and disseminators of that hoax either don't realize (or, more likely, just don't care) about the tremendous long-term, perhaps irreparable damage, they did to this country and its institutions and the trust thereof, but, hey, they got rid of Trump, so I guess it was all worthwhile. Better to rule in hell, right?

    1. Lying to get a warrant to spy on a rival politician?

      Did not, of course, happen.

      Raiding his attorney's office, seizing documents, and obtaining his testimony against his client?

      Pretty sure the only one prosecuted there was the attorney.

      A fat CIA colonel engineering a ludicrous impeachment?

      No idea what this is supposed to refer to.

      Obviously, this theory never gained much traction, but it likely would have if

      …there were lots of illicit dealings between Eisenhower and Khrushchev.

      1. Indeed, the attorney was the only one prosecuted, because he had nothing incriminating to offer on Trump. Why do you imagine his office was raided? A taxi medallion scam? What the hell did that have to do with Russian collusion?

        Another episode was Team Mueller, in an obvious PR stunt, charging a bunch of Russians, who they knew had zero possibilty of ever seeing the inside of an American courtroom, for dubious computer "crimes" (amounting, essentially, to opening fake Facebook accounts). Can't have Russian collusion without Russians, after all. Their bogus case, which they thought they would never have to make, however, blew up in their faces. They had made the mistake of indicting Russian companies as well as individuals. So, when those companies made appearances through counsel, they quickly dropped the case.

        Again, I'm old-fashioned, but I don't believe taxpayer dollars, Justice Department resources, grand juries, and our court system should be used for fake cases never intended to be tried.

      2. "Did not, of course, happen."

        Well, they lied to get a warrant to spy on a campaign worker. The FBI lawyer who fabricated the evidence got 12 months probation because he said he lied without the intent to mislead(!) and will get his law license back after a one year suspension.

        1. "They" — meaning one guy, who as far as I know identifies as male and just uses a singular pronoun — lied to extend an existing warrant to "spy on" — pejorative phrasing, but not false — a former campaign worker.

          1. So that they could play a game of Seven Degrees with the spying.

            Don't you know how this works? Once you get one of these warrants, you aren't limited to just spying on the person named. You can also spy on the people they communicated with, and the people THEY communicated with, and the people THEY communicated with.

            So if you want to conduct surveillance on somebody politically sensitive, you get a warrant on somebody two to three hops away, and you're good to go. Deniably, at least for people who aren't aware of how it's done.

            1. Don't you know how this works? Once you get one of these warrants, you aren't limited to just spying on the person named. You can also spy on the people they communicated with, and the people THEY communicated with, and the people THEY communicated with.

              No, you can't, Brett. I do in fact know how it works. The hops that you're talking about are only about metadata. Not content. You can't spy on anyone other than the subject of the warrant.

              1. Must be nice in that dream world of yours, where the spooks obey the rules.

                1. Typical Brett. Makes a factual claim about something he thinks he understands but doesn't, gets called on it, and so just responds with a look-a-squirrel conspiracy theory.

              2. You have proven you know how everything works. From pharma, to the court system, to well, you might be the world most God damn intelligentist person to ever walk the freaking planet. You are literally what this article is talking about.

        1. You are posting… an editorial. No, he was not spied on.

    2. You can complain about the origins all you want with misleading and irrelevant info, it doesn't change what was found. It wasn't a hoax, no matter how many times you all plug your ears and close your eyes and scream NO COLLUSION HOAX like the little toddlers you are.

      1. Wow, where do you people come from? Seriously? There is no proof, period. In fact, the only proof that has come out, is that the Clinton campaign was the one opening breaking laws. Maybe you should take a break from the world and stop playing go teams for a while. Trump was a buffoon, but Hillary, was even worse. Which is astounding to say. I don't know why I even post to people like you. You are too polarized to see your own sides flaws.

    3. I don't remember Somin pushing the Russia stuff though, he commented on events but he wasn't cheerleading anything.

  12. "It is true that such people know a lot, in the sense of learning large amounts of facts. But they also tend to be highly biased in their evaluation of political information. "

    Then perhaps the real problem is not ignorance, but bias.

  13. The case for unfettered free trade took a hit during the coronavirus pandemic, it seems to me. Free traders want to use the law of comparative advantage and locate supply chains in whatever country where costs are cheapest. But given there are events (including but not limited to pandemics) that can cause supply chain interruptions, shortages, and runs, there's an argument for some amount of protectionism as an insurance policy, so that a country's own capacity to make useful things is preserved. Yes that comes at an economic cost, but as I said, it's a form of insurance. Free trade theories don't get this.

    1. There's that, (Which I alluded to above.) there's also the likelihood that our currency will crash at some point, given our explosively growing deficits.

      At that point our foreign trade deficit will collapse to zero, as nobody will loan us money at any remotely reasonable rate. And the more we're obliged to import, and the less we can profitably export, the worse off we will be.

      I used to say that Trump had experience taking large enterprises through bankruptcy, and that was his most pertinent qualification for the office. A currency collapse is already baked in at this point, a President's most urgent job is to manage things so that the pain of it is minimized.

  14. As evident from these comments, ignorance and conspiracism may be holding steady nationally, but you could have made a fortune going long on their growing predominance in VC comment threads.

  15. "The scientific knowledge wasn't nearly as socially salient as it is today, and there were many millions more smokers. That meant social opinion was invariably somewhat split…."

    That's a hell of a non-sequitur. I haven't known many smokers or abusers of other substances that aren't fully aware of how bad it is but keep doing it anyway. To what extent that was true back then I can't say, but it's not a conclusion you can base on usage alone.

    1. Smoking has been known to be bad for your health for about as long as it's been practiced. Why do you suppose they used to call cigarettes "coffin nails"? Sure, the tobacco companies ran ads denying it, but they were persuading damned few people.

      I think what really pushed things over the edge, though, was the use of a particular form of asbestos in WWII shipbuilding; It turned smoking from bad to your health, to an absolute death sentence, for those exposed to it. It just made the health effects too awful to paper over any longer.

  16. So long as governments continue not actually doing the things they promise, not act in the best interests of their constituents, and not be faithful stewards of the public trust then you will continue to see people latch on to any kind of misinformation and build their own reality.

    Simply put- actually fix some fucking problems and maybe people wouldn't be going to the extremes thinking they need to just to get shit done.

    1. Why fix something when not fixing it maintains your job security.

  17. This is very meta. Man reads something on the internet, and concludes that his priors were right.

  18. It's a remarkable thing that the most vociferous supporters of 'free trade" and critics of 'protectionism' are invariably to be found in the ranks of the few remaining guild systems which exist in our society - academia, and the law. In Professor Somin's case he belongs to both, being a law professor. "Competition for thee, but not for me" is their motto.

    And that's apart from the other problems with their position. Their 'free trade" looks remarkably like support for good old fashioned mercantillism. Albeit the mercantillism they are supporting is that of the slave state which is China.

    At the end of the day their supposedly principled position looks suspiciously like naked self-interest. The polices they promote are unquestionably good for themselves and their class, but a disaster for all other Americans. In fairness to Cowen, I believe I've seen him admit average Americans would lose financially under his open borders scenarios ... he thinks that this is justified for the "greater good" of raising the standard of living of the scores of millions of new immigrants. And as I say, he personally will benefit from his proposed scheme.

  19. The optimal level of misinformation is not zero; in any case, if conspiracy theories are such a serious problem (spoiler alert: they are NOT), then why not legalize a "Conspiracy Theory Retrodiction Market"? I propose this here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3876710

    In brief, a betting market would aggregate all available information about the truth values of various conspiracy theories by allowing people to bet on their beliefs about past events.

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