Sunday, October 07, 2012

Teaching Low Information Citizens to Fish for Knowledge & Understanding

By Gary Berg-Cross

The recent presidential debate has been called wonky with stats and perhaps reflects the focused attention being paid to win over undecided/ unaffiliated voter. That’s the approximately 5 percent of the populace who say they haven’t decide who they will vote for president.  They may well decide the race and are a popular topic of conversation. Saturday Night Live spoofed them as no-nothings and low information, possibly slow thinking folks asked numbing questions such as: “When is the election? What are the names of the two people running? “Who is the president right now? Is he or she running?” Can women vote?”

But as  Ezra Klein pointed out in Washington Post blog “uninformed” need not mean “dumb.” We are all uninformed about some things, say the Redskins roster, when the World Series starts or why the banks failed in 2008. The culprit is human attention. At least that is the what political scientist Lynn Vavreck (UCLA) explains it:

“They are lower on political information, for sure. That’s a function of being not that interested and not paying attention. It’s not that they can’t comprehend the information, or that they’re at a balancing point and can’t decide. They’re just not dialed in. They’re not getting all the information you or I are getting.”

OK.  Understandable.  After all it’s a new TV season and important things compete for our time. So maybe it is more of a difference of values controlling what grabs our limited attention than intelligence. According to Vavreck’s polling, only 35 percent of undecided voters could identify Boehner’s job as “congressman” and maybe an equal number can identify John Wall as a basketball player.  Same thing I suppose.Freethinkers often wonder why some religiously devote seem to "know" so little about what their sacred books say, the contradictions therein and the reasonable implications of some of their precepts

It’s hard to remember details like the Senate GOP plan to help the economy. It included such general topics as:

1. Cut “job-killing regulations”
2. Add a balance the Budget Amendment to the Constitution;
3. Line Item Veto for the President.
4. Reduce corporate taxes;
5. Reduce the top tax rate to 25%;
6. Repeal Obamacare.

Who has time to fact check the details and implications?

Sure paid ads on some favorite TV shows may pump some info into the empty balloon knowledge spaces of low info voters (LIVs). This generates a temporary invest in and issue and with the election looming LIVs can soak up all they need to know from well funded political ads.

A third of people in Vavreck’s polling did not feel they “knew enough” to give President Obama a job rating.  That may be because the info isn’t current, or being argued by opponents or maybe even because one needs to think things through. It could be a mix of good and bad reasons. It does take effort to process information even when we devote attention to it.  Yes and perhaps a bit is generated by an adversarial system that recognizes human limitations and intends to confuse.  Better to have results determined by one’s base.

But all of this just doesn’t seem right for a Jeffersonian Democracy.  Maybe we need some directed civics to make all citizens interested participants. Ads are like giving a person a fish.  Free fishy ads at election time.  But if we teach citizens how to fish for information themselves they  is a lifetime of a healthier diet.

Image Credits:
Taxes 101 for the Low Information Voters:
Undecided voters:
Low Info Voter:
Teach a child to fish;

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