Arthur Lupia. Uninformed: Why People Know So Little about Politics and What We Can Do about It. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. 360 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-026372-0.
Reviewed by Ron Johnston (University of Bristol)
Published on H-Citizenship (May, 2016)
Commissioned by Sean H. Wang
Most of us know very little about most things and even with the things we do know about there is probably much more that we don’t know than we do--a point clearly made in the first chapter of Arthur Lupia’s book. But whereas ignorance may be bliss in many areas of knowledge, there are others in which all of us do need information, and one of them is in the operation of the modern democracies in which an increasing proportion of the world’s population lives. We are regularly invited (in some countries required) to make crucial decisions--mainly at elections when we can influence who rules for the next period but also, in some places at least, other aspects of society, as at referendums. So what information do we have when we approach those decisions? What information should we have? And what knowledge frameworks (theories? ideologies?) should we lodge and manipulate that information in--how do we use the information to best effect?
Addressing those two questions is at the heart of Lupia’s book: in order to be competent citizens what information and knowledge frameworks should “educators” ensure that we have, so that we can draw on relevant information when making a decision and use it to make reasoned decisions?
Uninformed is in two parts. The first, and by far the longest, addresses “the value of information” in eleven relatively brief chapters, whose contents are very usefully synthesised as ten points in the last of those chapters (pp. 182-183). “Educators” have to realize that people have limited attention spans and there are myriad calls on them to assimilate information and make decisions, so to engage people’s attention those educators have to find ways to motivate a wish to learn about the relevant issues across a targeted population--in democratic political systems about the leaders they are about to elect, for example. In this, identifying important cues is crucial; instead of expecting people to assimilate large volumes of information, if they can be given heuristics that enable them to make reasoned decisions on the basis of limited but valuable and relevant information, especially if it fits into their value systems, then their decision-making competence will be increased at relatively little cost, to either “educator” or “educated.”
The book’s first 180 pages develop this argument in considerable detail, in readily accessible language and with useful examples. The remainder--the shorter second half of about 100 pages--is entitled “How to improve political knowledge,” but much of it is concerned with measuring what people know about politics--with particular reference to the political knowledge questions used in the American National Election Studies (similar knowledge--really just information--questions are in other studies). This material is very different from that in the first part of the book: very valuable as an informed critique of how political knowledge is measured, although better as a destructive than a constructive critique--there is a strong case that most of the measures do not tap important knowledge but rather concentrate on trivial factual information.
This is a book in two valuable, but very different, parts, therefore. But it raises many doubts--especially regarding the first part. Throughout, Lupia talks of the roles that “educators” (should) play in ensuring that citizens have the correct information both to develop value systems and then to make competent decisions. But the people who the spend most time and money seeking to provide us with relevant information are not educators as we generally use the term--i.e., those involved in managing learning environments. Instead they are politicians (widely defined), who seek to instill information that is biased, in the sense that it supports their positions and (hopefully) leads you to vote for rather than against them. To me, the role of educators--sensu stricto--is to help citizens (especially relatively young ones) develop both their personal value systems and their thought processes so that they are ready when they have make to political decisions, as at elections. Then they can evaluate the information distributed to them by politicians, parties, interest groups, and a host of others seeking their support. The latter are not educators as I understand the term (they don’t teach in schools and universities, for example, and it is not the role of those who do to influence such decision making; they should be disinterested). And so much of this book--especially the first part--is not about how educators can inform citizens, it is about the strategies and tactics that politicians (in the broadest sense) should deploy when seeking votes. And are they likely to read this book?
As I was reading this book and preparing the review I was surrounded--in Great Britain--by campaigns seeking support in a variety of contests. Putting what I was reading in this context raised further problems about Lupia’s argument, which assumes that there is viable information that citizens can deploy when making their decisions. Take the June 2016 Remain-Leave referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. There is much call--for example, during TV and radio interactions with the general public--for “facts” on which the voting decision can be made. But there are very few, relevant “facts’--all that the “educators” (both politicians and so-called disinterested professionals such as economists) are providing is opinion, particularly opinion about the UK economy’s future. Will the UK be better off out than in? Basically, nobody knows. Economic models are based on assumptions, not facts, and there is a great deal of rhetoric. And so the information that many people appear to be relying on--their heuristics--is the identity of the supporters of each position: individual x, whom I respect, is in favor of Remain and provides a plausible rationale for that position, so that is how I will vote. Is that information as Lupia defines and discusses it?
Elections were also being held a few weeks before the referendum--for the mayor of London, for the mayors of four other towns and cities, for the National Assembly of Wales, and the Scottish Parliament, for example. Elections to mayoralties in England use the additional vote system. Electors are invited to indicate their first- and second-ranked candidate for the post. If nobody secures a majority of the first preference votes, the two candidates with most first preferences enter the second round of voting. The others are eliminated and their supporters’ second preferences are allocated to the remaining two candidates, if they are for one of those individuals still in the contest--second preferences for other candidates are discarded. So if there are three candidates, if your first preference doesn’t count (i.e., is not for one of the top two) then your second preference will. But if there are four or more, how can you know who the top two will be? You can’t; opinion polls or other information might help, but in many contests there is little if any such information available. Voting decisions have to be made on, at best, imperfect information and, at worst, very little at all.
It is the same with the elections to the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament, which use the mixed member proportional system: some members are elected from single-member constituencies using the plurality system, the others from party lists in regional multi-member districts. The outcome of the second of those sets of contests determines the total number of seats each party gets in the relevant region, according to proportional representation. A party that wins a large number of the plurality seats in a region is unlikely to gain more in the allocation of the regional “top-up seats,” and so voting for your favored party in the regional list as well as for its candidate in your home constituency may mean that the former vote is “wasted” and it would have been better for you to give your regional vote to your second-favored party, so that it counts. But how can you know that your regional vote will probably be wasted? You can’t: such information isn’t (can’t be) available because it depends on the unknown decisions of many thousands of other voters--and few if any opinion polls can give you the needed information for your region and constituency.
Lupia doesn’t extend his general arguments regarding information needs to specific contexts such as the electoral systems just discussed, and in some sense his arguments have little relevance to the “real world” of electoral decision making. Those general arguments are of value, however, in focusing the attention of those who analyze political decision making, such as psephologists, but their presentation as the context within which “educators” should act is somewhat misleading. “Educators,” as most understand the term, have important roles in developing abilities to process information, but the provision of the needed information when a decision has to be made is not their role. Thus Lupia’s arguments comprise a near fatal elision of two very different functions in a liberal democracy--a more nuanced differentiation is needed. And the book’s second part has a different audience again.
In sum, this is an intriguing but unsatisfying read.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-citizenship.
Ron Johnston. Review of Lupia, Arthur, Uninformed: Why People Know So Little about Politics and What We Can Do about It.
H-Citizenship, H-Net Reviews.
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