Chapter 2 of my forthcoming book Against Democracy is titled “Ignorant, Irrational, Misinformed Nationalists”. In that chapter, among other things, I review the empirical work on voter knowledge and behavior and establish that most voters are, as you might have guessed, ignorant, irrational, misinformed, and nationalistic.
But a friend’s friend on Facebook yesterday (FWIW, a person who hasn’t read the manuscript) claimed that irrationality and misinformation are really just forms of ignorance. That doesn’t seem right. So, I’ll briefly explain the differences among the three in this post.
Ignorance is a feature of what a person knows. A person who is merely ignorant about X lacks information about X. A person who is truly and completely ignorant about X would have no beliefs at all about X.
Misinformation is also a feature of what a person knows. A person who is misinformed about X has false or mistaken beliefs about X.
Cognitive irrationality is a feature of how a person forms beliefs. A cognitively irrational person forms beliefs the wrong way, using unreliable and/or biased thought processes. Believing P because the evidence overwhelming supports P is rational. Believing P on the basis of wishful thinking is not.
In principle, an irrational person could only have true beliefs. To illustrate, suppose Bob stupidly believes that he has magic dice that can give him answers to his questions. He wonders, “How many million miles is the Earth from the sun, approximately?” He rolls two ten-sided dice. Coincidentally, they say “93”. Bob now believes the Earth is about 93 million miles from the sun. Bob is not ignorant or misinformed, but he holds this true belief irrationally.
Why does this matter? Is it merely a semantic issue?
The following three phenomena are different:
1. Simply lacking information.
2. Having false beliefs.
3. Coming to form beliefs using unreliable and unscientific thought processes.
These three things are not the same thing, though of course we can come up with an umbrella term that includes all of them. For some of us who work on voter behavior, we have reason to distinguish the three not merely because as a matter of conceptual clarity they are different, but also because these three phenomena lead to different predictions about what people will do and what macro-level effects will result.
For instance, if 99% voters were perfectly ignorant, while the other 1% were well-informed, then democratic voting would lead to good results. But if 50% are misinformed rather than ignorant, it won’t.
Or, if most voters were ignorant and misinformed, but not at all irrational, then having voters deliberate together with better informed voters might cause them to all become better informed. But if voters are irrational, then having them deliberate could cause them to become less informed.