Americans and Innumeracy

by John Sides on January 8, 2012 · 13 comments

in Public opinion

In the Wall Street Journal, Carl Bialik mentions some of my research with Jack Citrin in a piece called “Americans Stumble on Math of Big Issues”:

Political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California, Berkeley, hypothesized in a working paper that supplying Americans, who typically overestimate the number of immigrants and illegal immigrants among them, with correct numbers would reduce the perceived threat of immigration and change their views. Instead, getting the right number reinforced their views, and even increased their support for letting fewer immigrants into the U.S.

There’s a lot of political science research cited in the piece—including some by James Kuklinski, Arthur Lupia, and others.

However, the quote above prompts Felix Salmon to write:

Which only goes to prove how out-of-touch political scientists can be. Not only are people naturally innumerate, but more generally you can’t argue people out of positions that they weren’t argued into.

Perhaps it’s silly of me to get worked up over something Salmon tossed off on his Tumblr.  But I am.  The ad hominem “out of touch” is what did it.  Really, the laziest thing one can say about scientific research is some version of “That study confirmed what I already thought so it’s a stupid study.”

But the substance of his remarks about innumeracy is wrong too.  And it’s important to say why.

First, are people “naturally innumerate”?  Consider their knowledge of politically relevant numbers.  Citrin and I show that citizens of many countries overestimate the percent of the population who is foreign-born.  Indeed, people tend to overestimate the proportion of the population that belongs to most minority groups (blacks, Latinos, gays, Jews, people on welfare, etc.).  And many Americans get specific policy details wrong: how many people pay the estate tax and the proportion of the budget spent on foreign aid, for example.  And some other things too.

But, on average, Americans are pretty accurate in their estimates of average income.  Eric Lawrence and I have also found that they are fairly accurate in their estimates of the percent of the population with college degrees and in their estimates of the unemployment rate.  Stephen Ansolabehere, Marc Meredith, and Erik Snowberg also find that their estimates of gas prices are pretty accurate.

In short, innumeracy is not a “natural” state.  The extent of innumeracy varies, depending on what numbers you’re asking people to estimate.

Second, when you correct misperceptions, does it matter?  Salmon suggest that it couldn’t: people can’t be argued out of positions that they weren’t argued into.  And there is much academic literature to back him up.  Indeed, if Salmon had read Citrin’s and my research, he would see that we are “in touch” enough to discuss that very expectation in detail.  We write:

In this case, there are good reasons to believe that attitudes toward minority groups are in fact less susceptible. Instead these attitudes may prove relatively stable despite any new, and more accurate, information.

And we go on to say why.

But there is also literature that finds the opposite: that information does change misperceptions and thereby attitudes.  I’ve previously mentioned my findings about public opinion and the estate tax: telling people that only a relatively few and relatively rich people pay this tax does reduce opposition to the tax.  Martin Gilens finds that telling people the correct fraction of the budget spent on foreign aid reduces their desire to cut it.  Similarly, he finds that telling them that the crime rate—another thing people tend to overestimate—is declining reduces their desire to spend money on prisons.

So again, the results vary.  Whether and how much is the public affected by correct information?  It seems to depend, although we don’t yet know on what.  But it’s not correct to suggest that the mere possibility is laughable.

Ultimately, I’d say the problem is not that political scientists like Jack Citrin and me are “out of touch” with the obviously correct ideas of Felix Salmon.   The problem is that Salmon isn’t “in touch” with political science.

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