Friday, June 16, 2017

Public ignorance, brown cows, and the origins of chocolate milk [updated with some additional information]

" A new survey indicating that 7 percent of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows has gotten a lot of media attention, including from NBC, Huffington Post, Food & Wine, and the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. As an example of public ignorance, this is not a particularly worrisome figure.

Sadly, there are numerous far worse examples of public ignorance out there, including many about far more consequential issues. The 7 percent figure pales in comparison with the 25 percent who don’t know the earth orbits the sun, the 66 percent who can’t name the three branches of government, and – my personal favorite – the 80 percent who support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA.

In and of itself, ignorance is not a problem. It is often rational and is an unavoidable part of the human condition. But ignorance becomes dangerous when individually rational ignorance leads to harmful collective outcomes. Sadly, that is often the case with political ignorance, and ignorance about scientific issues relevant to government policy. From the standpoint of the individual voter, it makes sense to devote little effort to acquiring information about government and public policy, because the chance that her vote will make a difference is infinitesimally small. But such behavior can lead to terrible outcomes when an entire electorate is ignorant in this way."

[Washington Post]

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