Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Sun Orbits the Earth: the Proper Uses of Opinion Polls

Last month, Time magazine and a bunch of other news outlets revealed a disturbing fact:  1 in 4 Americans believes the sun revolves around the earth.  Sam Grossman, writing in Time, offered this comforting caveat:  “Americans actually fared better than Europeans who took similar quizzes — at least when it came to the sun and Earth question. Only 66 percent of European Union residents answered that one correctly.”

Here’s a less comforting caveat:  In 1999, the number who didn’t know the earth-sun relationship was 1 in 5.  So that suggests that by 3000, that little piece of cosmological knowledge will be as rare as the proper use of a slide rule.

Now you might say, “But that doesn’t mean that all these standardized tests we’re making our kids take are going to waste.  They’re just learning more important things than obscure information about distant celestial objects.”  After all, does knowing that the earth orbits the sun affect our ability to use gravity?  No. Does it help me decide when it’s going to be light enough to wash my car (not that we Californians are washing our cars these days – we have a drought)?  No. So who really cares?

It’s true, my friends’ kids who went to Bay Area public schools learned a lot of cool stuff I didn’t learn in school, and not all of it involved video display screens.  They did whole units on Filipino history and the Black Panthers.  So I would be more sanguine about the loss of what I was raised to consider basic human knowledge if it weren’t for some other troubling facts I ran across recently.

Here are two quotes from an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times: 

“In the United States, the share of market income captured by the richest 10 percent surged from around 30 percent in 1980 to 48 percent by 2012, while the share of the richest 1 percent increased from 8 percent to 19 percent. Even more striking is the fourfold increase in the income share of the richest 0.1 percent, from 2.6 percent to 10.4 percent.”

A January poll by the Pew Research Center and USA Today found that “65 percent believe the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the last 10 years.”

This wasn't the editorial's point, but it should have been:  35% of Americans believe something that is objectively false.  (And before anyone points out that the statistics in the first paragraph are based on 30 years, not 10, and thus don’t directly contradict people’s belief, here’s one that does:  “From 2009 to 2012, as the U.S. economy improved, incomes of the top 1% grew more than 31%, while the incomes of the 99% grew 0.4% - less than half a percentage point.”)
When Republican David Jolly won the Florida special Congressional election last week, it was touted by both sides as a win for the anti-Obamacare messaging of the Koch Brothers and Karl Rove.  In particular, it’s seen as a win for personal anecdotes about people being screwed by Obamacare.  One of those anecdote-tellers is Julie Boonstra of Michigan.  When a journalist from the Detroit News told Ms. Boonstra that the plan she enrolled in under Obamacare will in fact save her money, not be unaffordable as she has claimed, she simply said, “I personally do not believe that.”  
Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC's "All In" (a really stupid name for an often good show) interviewed a political scientist named Brendan Nyhan, who explained based on his research that debunking the stories doesn’t do any good because people with strong beliefs simply refuse to believe the evidence.  In fact, according to one of Nyhan’s articles,
“We conducted an experiment to determine if more aggressive media fact-checking could correct the false belief that the Affordable Care Act would create “death panels.” Participants from an opt-in Internet panel were randomly assigned to either a control group in which they read an article on Sarah Palin’s claims about “death panels” or an intervention group in which the article also contained corrective information refuting Palin.
Findings: The correction reduced belief in death panels and strong opposition to the reform bill among those who view Palin unfavorably and those who view her favorably but have low political knowledge. However, it backfired among politically knowledgeable Palin supporters, who were more likely to believe in death panels and to strongly oppose reform if they received the correction.”
It’s easy to blame the decline of education for our severe case of inability to distinguish issues appropriate for opinion polls from matters of fact.  David Coleman, president of the College Board and designer of the Common Core educational standards, certainly thinks so.  But wait, these people who are so sold on death panels and other fake horror stories about Obama and his care?  They’re not millennials or the product of famously failing inner-city schools; they’re old white people from suburbs.

So if we can’t blame teachers, our favorite scapegoats, then who?  The media, that’s who.

My friend’s son, Jack Mirkinson, who is media editor at the Huffington Post, was recently on CNN, along with popular physicist Michio Kaku, to discuss the proposition that “Climate Change Is Not Debatable.”    The point they made is that inviting climate deniers onto news shows is like inviting – well, the people who believe the sun revolves around the earth.

The fact that Brian Stelter brought up that issue and had Mirkinson and Kaku on to talk about it is progress.  But the principle, that the media need to limit segments in which people are asked their opinions to issues on which there is a legitimate difference of opinion, needs to be more broadly applied.  When Pew Research Center and USA Today released the results of the poll on wealth inequality, the headline was not “35% of Americans Don’t Know Inequality Is The Worst It’s Ever Been.”  It was, “Most See Inequality Growing, but Partisans Differ over Solutions.”  The question that needs to be asked is not whether most see inequality growing or not, it is.  The question is, why do a third of us not see what’s in front of our faces?  Despite Progress,Many Say Racial Equality Still Not a Reality,” casts the question of whether we’ve achieved racial equality as a matter of opinion, when it’s a fact that by every measure, we have not.

Believing the sun revolves around the earth is basically harmless, even if it becomes a majority opinion.  We’ll keep having seasons and gravity will keep us from falling into the earth and burning up whether we believe in it or not.  The belief by two-thirds of whites that Blacks and whites are treated equally fairly by police is not harmless.  Our fallacious opinions on income distribution, affirmative action, racial profiling, health access and climate change are used to make bad policy.  And too often, the media amplifies our wrong opinions by reporting them without pointing out that they contradict the facts.