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Ignorance, Politics and Deliberative Democracy


Mercurial

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I've recently come across some very interesting results from studies carried out by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.

From their website:

The Problem
Citizens are often uninformed about key public issues. Conventional polls represent the public's surface impressions of sound bites and headlines. The public, subject to what social scientists have called "rational ignorance," has little reason to confront trade-offs or invest time and effort in acquiring information or coming to a considered judgment.
Selected Results
Each experiment conducted thus far has gathered a highly representative sample together at a single place. Each time, there were dramatic, statistically significant changes in views. The result is a poll with a human face. The process has the statistical representativeness of a scientific sample but it also has the concreteness and immediacy of a focus group or a discussion group. Taped and edited accounts of the small group discussions provide an opportunity for the public to reframe the issues in terms that connect with ordinary people.

The weekend samples have typically ranged in size from approximately 200 in the utility polls; however some have had numbers as high as 466, such as at the 1996 National Issues Convention. The process provides the data to evaluate both the representativeness of each microcosm and the statistical significance of the changes in opinion.
Of particular relevance are the results from an experiment undertaken in Northern Ireland:




So, what do people think about this? Are most people less informed than they ought to be and are there effective ways we can tackle the problem, if so?

I suspect the major problems would be to do with logistics and fairness - i.e. ensuring that members of the public are educated rather than indoctrinated. It might be the case that we're better off with a less hands-on approach, given the potential for manipulation, but presumably it should be possible to provide citizens with the opportunity to become sufficiently educated about the issues without the risk of merely exposing them to propaganda. It's worth discussing, at any rate.
 


Mattarigna

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Oct 20, 2012
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5,107
I've recently come across some very interesting results from studies carried out by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.

From their website:





Of particular relevance are the results from an experiment undertaken in Northern Ireland:




So, what do people think about this? Are most people less informed than they ought to be and are there effective ways we can tackle the problem, if so?

I suspect the major problems would be to do with logistics and fairness - i.e. ensuring that members of the public are educated rather than indoctrinated. It might be the case that we're better off with a less hands-on approach, given the potential for manipulation, but presumably it should be possible to provide citizens with the opportunity to become sufficiently educated about the issues without the risk of merely exposing them to propaganda. It's worth discussing, at any rate.
Certainly, getting people better informed is always a good thing. But this would make people more likely to question how things are done, so it suits the elite of this country to keep the public uninformed.
 

Astral Peaks

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Increased affluence, easy access to multiple entertainment sources/streams, greater leisure time, too much TV for children, decreased emphasis on complex reading in education systems, alienation from political processes and a very heightened emphasis on material over social values all contribute, in my view.
 

Feckkit

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Increased affluence, easy access to multiple entertainment sources/streams, greater leisure time, too much TV for children, decreased emphasis on complex reading in education systems, alienation from political processes and a very heightened emphasis on material over social values all contribute, in my view.

Not only all of that, but, in my 'umble opinion, you can add the failure of education - from primary level upwards - to engage kids in the art of how to think [things through for themselves].

Youngsters nowadays (yeah, I know) are told what to think, by and large, and end up being parrots with little or no initiative. Generalisation though that may be, I recognise this disturbing feature on a regular basis at a professional level. In my view it has worsened decade by decade.

The upshot, I suppose, is that many young people regard 'public information' as none of their business. They have their own preoccupations which are largely based around 'self'.
 

farnaby

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Increased affluence, easy access to multiple entertainment sources/streams, greater leisure time, too much TV for children, decreased emphasis on complex reading in education systems, alienation from political processes and a very heightened emphasis on material over social values all contribute, in my view.
I'd add cynicism about politics, paradoxically fuelled by those who most want to see more citizen engagement in politics. By constantly pointing out political failings and never recognising achievements, the likes of Fintan O'Toole, Mick Clifford etc. don't (as I believe they'd like to) stoke up transformative anger but lead many to apathetic attitudes like "they're all the same, they're in it only for themselves, can't trust any of them, nothing will ever change, why should I bother".
 

Clanrickard

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It might be the case that we're better off with a less hands-on approach, given the potential for manipulation, but presumably it should be possible to provide citizens with the opportunity to become sufficiently educated about the issues without the risk of merely exposing them to propaganda. It's worth discussing, at any rate.
I think it is a case of citizens being too lazy to inform themselves. There is a vast swathe of the electorate that are lumpen proletariat who watch foreign soaps, z factor and other nonsense and if they read a paper it is a red top. These people could not know much about important issues. Alongside the right to vote is the responsibility to inform yourself.
 

ger12

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So, what do people think about this? Are most people less informed than they ought to be and are there effective ways we can tackle the problem, if so?

I suspect the major problems would be to do with logistics and fairness - i.e. ensuring that members of the public are educated rather than indoctrinated. It might be the case that we're better off with a less hands-on approach, given the potential for manipulation, but presumably it should be possible to provide citizens with the opportunity to become sufficiently educated about the issues without the risk of merely exposing them to propaganda. It's worth discussing, at any rate.
The business of politics (cleaning it up) and the behavior of politicians (a more .. honest .. approach perhaps) may go a long way to encourage citizens to look more deeply at political issues and become more involved?
 

statsman

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I've recently come across some very interesting results from studies carried out by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.

From their website:





Of particular relevance are the results from an experiment undertaken in Northern Ireland:




So, what do people think about this? Are most people less informed than they ought to be and are there effective ways we can tackle the problem, if so?

I suspect the major problems would be to do with logistics and fairness - i.e. ensuring that members of the public are educated rather than indoctrinated. It might be the case that we're better off with a less hands-on approach, given the potential for manipulation, but presumably it should be possible to provide citizens with the opportunity to become sufficiently educated about the issues without the risk of merely exposing them to propaganda. It's worth discussing, at any rate.
After this baseline poll, members of the sample are invited to gather at a single place for a weekend in order to discuss the issues. Carefully balanced briefing materials are sent to the participants and are also made publicly available. The participants engage in dialogue with competing experts and political leaders based on questions they develop in small group discussions with trained moderators. Parts of the weekend events are broadcast on television, either live or in taped and edited form. After the deliberations, the sample is again asked the original questions. The resulting changes in opinion represent the conclusions the public would reach, if people had opportunity to become more informed and more engaged by the issues.
Might I suggest that this is, at the very least, open to being interpreted as possibly benign voter manipulation? Who decides what 'carefully balanced' means? Who selects the 'competing experts' and what do you do with areas where experts are not competing? Who trains the moderators?

On more practical ground, how would you go replicate a weekend retreat for an entire electorate? Because unless you do, the polls will be even more unrepresentative of the general view of things than is now the case.
 

sethjem7

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I think it would be a good thing to have matters of civil and social importance discussed and taught in school as early as possible. Something beyond the debating team in the clever class or the tainted view of social issues from the religious classes.
 

farnaby

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I think it would be a good thing to have matters of civil and social importance discussed and taught in school as early as possible. Something beyond the debating team in the clever class or the tainted view of social issues from the religious classes.
Helpful, but likely that those who listen and engage in class will be those who would anyway take an interest in later life; and those who don't, won't. The media distractions mentioned by Astral and Clanrickard are, after all, marketed largely toward this agegroup (teenager to young adult).

Let's face it, for many of us participating on this site it's an entertaining way to spend time (and lofty notions of incisive contribution to the public debate are lost after 1000+ posts ;)). The majority of people see no entertainment value in this and prefer to spend their evenings "vegging" in front of the tv. Some may even do so in the knowledge that there is something else much more rewarding to be doing but the effort of doing it loses to the temptation of easy-on-the-brain half-hour slices of light entertainment.

The point is, if we want the latter group of people to be engaged in politics we either need to pander to their need for it to be easy-going and entertaining, or starting pulling the plugs on the endless streams of vapid entertainment to create space and time for people to deliberate and act. I'd go for the latter.
 

Clanrickard

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The point is, if we want the latter group of people to be engaged in politics we either need to pander to their need for it to be easy-going and entertaining, or starting pulling the plugs on the endless streams of vapid entertainment to create space and time for people to deliberate and act. I'd go for the latter.
There should be no question of dumbing down politics. Lots of issues are tedious and complicated but they are important. Also TV especially Tabloid 3 put out programmes that appeal to the greater numbers because of advertising. So disgracefully does RTE. I think Civics should compulsory for the first and second year of secondary school. It would help if politicians, civil servants, guards, military personnel and others from all walks of life came in and spoke to students about their role in society. It may not completely relieve the ignorance but it may open some doors in some minds to greater participation in public and engagement with politics.
 

sethjem7

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Helpful, but likely that those who listen and engage in class will be those who would anyway take an interest in later life; and those who don't, won't. The media distractions mentioned by Astral and Clanrickard are, after all, marketed largely toward this agegroup (teenager to young adult).

Let's face it, for many of us participating on this site it's an entertaining way to spend time (and lofty notions of incisive contribution to the public debate are lost after 1000+ posts ;)). The majority of people see no entertainment value in this and prefer to spend their evenings "vegging" in front of the tv. Some may even do so in the knowledge that there is something else much more rewarding to be doing but the effort of doing it loses to the temptation of easy-on-the-brain half-hour slices of light entertainment.

The point is, if we want the latter group of people to be engaged in politics we either need to pander to their need for it to be easy-going and entertaining, or starting pulling the plugs on the endless streams of vapid entertainment to create space and time for people to deliberate and act. I'd go for the latter.
I think there is an accessibility issue for all though, if we had it as an important part of the curriculum we might just catch more into the net and nurture a better understanding of the larger political/civil society and how it operates.
 

farnaby

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I think there is an accessibility issue for all though, if we had it as an important part of the curriculum we might just catch more into the net and nurture a better understanding of the larger political/civil society and how it operates.
Agreed, it would be a good step, I just don't think it's the most important factor influencing civic engagement for the reasons I outlined.

Having recently read/viewed reminders of the horrors of Stalin's gulags and Mao's collectivised agriculture disasters, such classes should include such reminders of how bad things can get without democratic institutions and decision-making, despite their weaknesses.
 

theObserver@hotmail.com

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Agreed, it would be a good step, I just don't think it's the most important factor influencing civic engagement for the reasons I outlined.

Having recently read/viewed reminders of the horrors of Stalin's gulags and Mao's collectivised agriculture disasters, such classes should include such reminders of how bad things can get without democratic institutions and decision-making, despite their weaknesses.
Or a reminder of the consequences of mass political movements and ideology.

I'm happy with the general political apathy.
 

sethjem7

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Agreed, it would be a good step, I just don't think it's the most important factor influencing civic engagement for the reasons I outlined.

Having recently read/viewed reminders of the horrors of Stalin's gulags and Mao's collectivised agriculture disasters, such classes should include such reminders of how bad things can get without democratic institutions and decision-making, despite their weaknesses.
I know, it is just one small part of what I think needs to be done.
 

shiel

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Agreed, it would be a good step, I just don't think it's the most important factor influencing civic engagement for the reasons I outlined.

Having recently read/viewed reminders of the horrors of Stalin's gulags and Mao's collectivised agriculture disasters, such classes should include such reminders of how bad things can get without democratic institutions and decision-making, despite their weaknesses.
The basic message that this is a democracy has to be emphasised. All of us are, therefore, equally entitled to vote. We have a free press, an independent legal system etc.

But it also has to be pointed out that all of us are corruptible by unaccountable power, institutions, even democratic ones, are made up of imperfect human beings.

Democracy is not perfect but it is better than alternatives such as Stalin, Hitler, Pol pot etc.
 

sethjem7

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I suppose Astral and others are correct, given the percentage of posts in the KPMG girl thread compared to this one.
 

ibis

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I've recently come across some very interesting results from studies carried out by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.

From their website:





Of particular relevance are the results from an experiment undertaken in Northern Ireland:




So, what do people think about this? Are most people less informed than they ought to be and are there effective ways we can tackle the problem, if so?

I suspect the major problems would be to do with logistics and fairness - i.e. ensuring that members of the public are educated rather than indoctrinated. It might be the case that we're better off with a less hands-on approach, given the potential for manipulation, but presumably it should be possible to provide citizens with the opportunity to become sufficiently educated about the issues without the risk of merely exposing them to propaganda. It's worth discussing, at any rate.
I can't help but feel that your response here - in terms of the questions you ask - is typical of the politically interested, and rather ignores one of the major issues identified in academic work as a factor in voter ignorance, which is "rational ignorance". A couple of posters have alluded to this, but, again, their comments have been couched in terms which reflect the fact that they too are amongst the politically interested (not exactly surprising here on p.ie!).

"Rational ignorance" literally means that it's not worth the time and effort involved in becoming educated about an issue, when the consequences of not doing so are effectively minimal for the average voter - I don't mean the consequences in terms of whether bad policy is made, but in terms of whether they can really use the information consequent on the effort of educating themselves. Putting out yet more sources of information makes no real difference to that calculation, unless the information is so watered down into easily digestible soundbites that it's virtually useless in terms of really informing anyone (and is almost inevitably propaganda, even if unintentionally so).

I don't think this is a circle that can be squared. You can lead a voter to information, but you cannot make them think.
 

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