Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Americans need to know more

This Newsweek article, provocatively entitled "How Ignorant are Americans?", is pretty popular on The Browser right now. At first I wasn't inclined to pay it much heed: hand-wringing about American ignorance is its own cottage industry, and has been for decades. However, I finally read it and was mildly encouraged by a bit of research noted at the end of the article:
For years, Stanford communications professor James Fishkin has been conducting experiments in deliberative democracy. The premise is simple: poll citizens on a major issue, blind; then see how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts. What Fishkin has found is that while people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending, they tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget.
However, that brings us to the problem of what constitutes a trusted source of information. Far too many people mistrust the news media these days, and I'm hard-pressed to argue that they're wrong. I doubt anyone can claim that his or her favorite news organization hasn't made mistakes that cast doubt on its trustworthiness. Also, no one can say whether factual errors are caused by sloppiness or bias.

A more troubling question is whether enough of us want to find trustworthy sources of information. If you believe most media observers, most of us seek out media outlets that present news slanted to reinforce our beliefs. It could be because we think we're in a culture war and we need to support our allies. It could be because we're so confused by the claims of every media outlet to be The Source Of Unbiased, Reliable Information that we've thrown up our hands and simply handed ourselves over to whatever source is least likely to insult us. Whatever the reason, this pernicious habit of balkanizing ourselves into echo chambers is a tall, perhaps unbreachable obstacle to getting to Fishkin's promised land of a well-informed population capable of determining rational responses to its problems.

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