Evidence that Advanced Education Reduces Understanding

The Economist has put together a large special edition about the problems facing California.  It is a very sobering article about the problems that have been developing for the past 30 years.  The overall message of the article is that the initiative process has been disastrous for California because people will vote for a “good” thing, but not understand the consequences.  As a result many seemingly “good ideas” are bad for the state as a whole.  It does not blame parties, it blames the voters for the problems.

The one section I am going to focus on used some in depth polling of the electorate of the state.  The results are simply stunning to say the very least.  The opening paragraph is so good and so relevant to the discussion that I have to quote it.

“A POPULAR GOVERNMENT without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to Farce or Tragedy or perhaps both,” James Madison wrote. “A people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” The question in any democracy, but especially a direct democracy in which citizens legislate at the ballot box, is how much voters do in fact know.

If I extrapolate from the James Madison quote and judge California on the level of Farce and Tragedy that is in progress, it is clear that the people have failed to “arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.”

The article goes into great depth about the ever increasingly complicated legal situation as each proposition creates a set of unintended consequences that then needs a later proposition to attempt to fix the problems created with the first one.  The end result in the state of California is that no one understands the funding laws for the public schools.  By slowly explaining the growing farce of initiative based elections it gets to a truly fascinating discovery.

This poll was about as simple as it gets.  It was only asking about the basic overview of Proposition 13 which started the growing avalanche of initiatives.  The question was:

Does Proposition 13 apply to:  Residential only.  Commercial only.  Or both Residential and Commercial Property.

That is a simple question.  This initiative has been in the news for 30+ years now (passed in 1978) and only 1/3rd of people were able to answer that it applies to both Residential and Commercial properties.  That is only the tip of the iceberg for the story though.

When it came to predicting who answered the question correctly, there was a strong correlation between education level and the correct response.

Those with advanced education (Master’s or above) were the least likely (i.e. less than 33%) to get the answer correct.

Those with a high school education only were the most likely (i.e. greater than 33%) to get the answer correct.

Those that owned property were the least likely to answer correctly.

That that rented property were the most likely to answer correctly.

So the conclusion from the pollster (Professor Kimberly Nadler at California State University in Sacramento) is that people were basing their vote on their perception of their own self-interest instead of actually gaining any understanding about what was actually happening.  The people with the most education were the least likely to actually study the issue and act only based on their perceptions.

Even more shocking was the following poll result:

The longer a person has lived in California the least likely they were to answer correctly.

The shorter a person has lived in California the more likely they were to answer correctly.

It might appear that the longer a person has lived in California the less they know.  Or at least the more misinformed they are about what is actually going on.  Here is the comparable quote from the Economist on the issue:

The longer that people live in California, it seems, the more likely they are to be misinformed, and possibly brainwashed into ignorance. The supporters of Proposition 13, says Mr Nalder, have for three decades framed the debate as the “little guy versus the established powers”, with images such as that of a grandmother being taxed out of her home. Homeowners who are happy with their low property taxes might therefore ignore the fact that large firms, trusts and hedge funds which own commercial property benefit just as much, because that would “disrupt that clean narrative”. They also ignore the fact that property taxes elsewhere are high.

How many problems this highlights is too numerous to mention, so I will focus only on the global warming aspect.  If people cannot understand one of the the three possibilities that property taxes apply to, how can they possibly have enough information to understand global warming?  The simplest fact is that they cannot.

Education even appears to be a hindrance in taking the time to understand before reaching a conclusion.  They must be assuming that because they have an education that they understand the issue when they do not.  It makes me wonder at how many people out there have really taken the time to understand global warming.  I suspect that the number is very small as a percentage of the population.

As James Madison said, this can only lead to Farce, Tragedy or both.  In this regard both the financial situation in California and the global warming debate have much in common.  The amount of money being wasted on both is truly sad simply because it is wasted.  Only by taking the time to understand can proper decisions be made.

Posted in Fear and Misinformation and Skeptic and Unintended Consequences by inconvenientskeptic on May 3rd, 2011 at 5:19 am.


This post has 4 comments

  1. Richard111 May 4th 2011

    There was a report in the UK Daily Mail, Tuesday May 3, about students “brawling and vomiting in a sunny Cambridge park”.
    The headline was Our elite at play.
    “What elite?”, says my wife, “that is just the rabble from the state schools.”
    The policy of forcing universities to take on “disadvantaged” students seem negative to me. The above article mentions a pig’s head on a pole. I wonder if there were attempts to make a silk purse?

  2. Greg2213 May 21st 2011

    Having had a long email discussion with a luke-warmist awhile back I have come to the conclusion that the first question to ask is, “What do you mean by ‘Global Warming?'” Or something similar.

    There’s the version that’s actually supported by science, and then there is the Al Gore/Hansen (We’re All Gonna DIE!!!) version. The info that most of us receive from the media tends to lean towards the latter. It would be nice if the sources that claim to be unbiased actually were unbiased. It would be nice if the alarmism was left to the editorial pages.

    “It does not blame parties, it blames the voters for the problems.” This is wrong. I blame the information sources for delivering agendas, rather than providing honest information. Sure, the voter should do the research, but how is the voter to decide between Real Climate or WattsUpWithThat? Or that the analysis in the newspaper is wrong/inadequate/biased?

    We want to be able to go to an authoritative source and get our answers. We want to be able to trust that source. Doing the research is much more difficult when we have to be skeptical of all sources.

  3. inconvenientskeptic May 21st 2011


    In the end people must be responsible for their own views. Global warming is a much more complicated topic, but the article I used for this article was very specific to a simple topic. Even in that regard people failed to properly educate themselves. That makes the popular view of global warming that much less meaningful.

    My view is that the less people feel the need to research a topic, the easier it is for them to be swayed.

    Global warming is an enormous and vast topic to understand. Most people cannot take the time to truly study it before making a decision. That refers to either version. That is a likely contributor to the highly politicized nature that the debate has taken. People listen to the point of the people they tend to agree with.

    There is no really easy way to study the topic. At least not yet. Eventually science will win out in the debate, the question is how much damage will be done before that happens.

    I appreciate the thoughtful comment.

  4. Greg2213 May 22nd 2011

    I agree that people have some responsibility to do some research into the issues. I also agree that people who are poorly educated on those issues are easily swayed by sound-bites and such. It’s just that getting to the good info is tough, even if you are motivated to do so.

    Laziness plus bad info = an un(der)educated public.

    “That is a likely contributor to the highly politicized nature that the debate has taken. ”

    I think it’s less the complexity of the issue than the energy of a variety of agendas that have an interest in pushing the “Warming is Going to Hurt us All” meme. Those agendas start from the scientists who like the idea of having steady funding, allowing them to keep their jobs and feed their families, on up to those people with more “interesting” agendas.

    “People listen to the point of the people they tend to agree with.”

    Absolutely, until such time as they decide that that group of people is full of it. Of course, it doesn’t exactly help to “win hearts and minds” when the one side is seen as being completely contemptuous of the other side.

    “Global warming is an enormous and vast topic to understand. ”

    I think the basic idea is actually simple enough, though the research that it took to get there isn’t necessarily that simple. I also think that you have to carefully define your terms, first. Then there’s the idea that the very term itself is meaningless, much like “climate change.” There are too many assumptions and gotchas there, too much wiggle room, and too much room for misunderstanding.

    As for the main topic: “…people were basing their vote on their perception of their own self-interest instead of actually gaining any understanding about what was actually happening. The people with the most education were the least likely to actually study the issue… ”
    I was there in the prop 13 days. The left side hated it and the people who owned property massively supported it, in their own interest. They saw that their taxes would go down and didn’t really need to look much further than that.

    A media that leans left and is more interested in sentsationalism than hard news can hardly be counted on to give an objective analysis years after the fact.

    Heh. I think the point I’m trying to make is that the people side of the issue, as raised by the Economist, might be every bit as complicated as “global warming.”

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