Felix Salmon smackdown watch, misperceptions edition

By Felix Salmon
January 9, 2012
dismissing their science out of hand on my Tumblr: they really are careful and sophisticated researchers, and Sides is well within his rights to give me a good slap.

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Apologies to John Sides and Jack Citrin for dismissing their science out of hand on my Tumblr: they really are careful and sophisticated researchers, and Sides is well within his rights to give me a good slap.

On the other hand, when Sides talks about “the substance of my remarks about innumeracy”, he doesn’t get me exactly right — which is hardly surprising, given that he was going on just two throwaway sentences.

My point about innumeracy was not that people will always guess wrong when asked to estimate something. In fact, there are some things — especially very salient variables like gas prices — which people know to within a high degree of accuracy. But that doesn’t make them numerate.

Instead, I had in mind two broader points. Firstly, everybody is bad at estimating small or large numbers: the difference between a millionth and a billionth, for instance, or the difference between a billion and a trillion, is much smaller, in the human mind, than the difference between 1 and 1,000. So when you ask people to estimate things which are small in reality but high in perceived salience, like the percentage of the US budget going on foreign aid or the proportion of immigrants in the population as a whole, then you’re always going to end up with an overestimate.

And more generally, numeracy is about much more than estimating proportions and percentages. It’s about comfort with numbers and number lines, and having an intuitive feel for how they work. If I ask you what two thirds of three quarters is, do you have to work it out, or do you pretty much know that it’s one half without having to think about it? In my experience there are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who have to think about it and will probably get it wrong, and the ones who don’t have to think about it and will probably get it right. That’s what I mean by numeracy.

And what about my second point, that “generally you can’t argue people out of positions that they weren’t argued into”? I still think that’s true. Sides gives a couple of carefully-chosen counterexamples, which show that in certain circumstances it can be possible to influence some people’s opinions on certain subjects, at least for a limited period of time, if you provide them with clear information about those subjects first. (This is a well-known fact in political circles, and has given rise to the phenomenon of “push-polling”.)

And in other research Brendan Nyhan has shown that if you present information in graphical form, it’s more effective than if you just present it verbally. Again, this comes as little surprise.

But the big picture base case is still unchanged — indeed, Nyhan says that his results “underscore the challenges faced by those who hope to reduce misperceptions among the public”. The general public doesn’t want its mind changed, and any changes which do happen are always going to happen slowly. Which is why presidential debates are almost never about who won the argument on any particular point, much as people like myself would love it if they were. The goal in such debates isn’t to win some kind of intellectual argument: it’s to make as many people as possible think that you think the same thing that they think. People will vote for the person they agree with — not the person with the sharpest wit or the cleverest arguments or the most apposite facts.

Wouldn’t you agree?

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