Bryan Caplan  

Education and Beliefs About Campaign Finance: An Exception to the Rule

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More educated people almost always have more sensible beliefs than less educated people. I've said it many times. But this Wednesday at lunch, Erik Snowberg from Stanford pointed out an interesting counter-example: Less educated people have less biased beliefs about the amount of money spent on campaign finance. As he explains in his paper with Ansolabehere and Snyder (Public Opinion Quarterly 69(2): 213-231):

The average figures [about campaign contributions, expenditures, or receipts] reported in newspapers exceed the analogous figures from the FEC by as much as eight fold. Press reports also focus excessively on corporate contributions and soft money, rather than on the more common types of donors – individual – and types of contributions – hard money... [T]hese biases are reflected in public perceptions of money in elections. Survey respondents overstate the amount of money raised and the share from different groups by roughly the amount found in newspapers, and better educated people (those most likely to read newspapers) showed the greatest discrepancy between their beliefs and the facts.
Well, if educated people are going to fall flat, I'm at least glad to hear that newspapers are a credible suspect. What Delos Wilcox wrote about newspapers in 1900 is truer than ever:
But we must deplore and, so far as possible, overcome the evils of habitual newspaper reading. These evils are, chiefly, three: first, the waste of much time and mental energy in reading unimportant news and opinions, and premature, untrue, or imperfect accounts of important matters; second, the awakening of prejudices and the enkindling of passions through the partisan bias or commercial greed of newspaper managers; third, the loading of the mind with cheap literature and the development of an aversion for books and sustained thought.
Yes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.


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COMMENTS (3 to date)
Selfreferencing writes:

I wonder if this finding will apply to regular blog readers as much as regular newspaper readers. That would be bad for you, wouldn't it Bryan?

; )

Dr. T writes:

Snowberg shows his own bias here. Most educated persons know that the distinction between 'soft' and 'hard' campaign money is artificial. Therefore, the newspaper reports of total campaign funds are what we remember. If poll questions are highly specific such as "How much money has been directly donated to presidential candidates (not counting money donated to PACs and other groups who may support a specific candidate)?," then well educated persons probably will do better than less educated persons.

I suspect that most less educated persons have no idea about campaign funding, and the guesses they made were probably for combined 'hard' and 'soft' funding. But, because they did not know the exorbitant amounts being spent, they underestimated total funding by almost an order of magnitude.

Scott Wood writes:

Just a couple of random thoughts: Has anyone trying to determine whether better educated people overestimate the number of people earning the minimum wage by a greater or lesser extent than less educated people?

Also, from what I've heard, belief in the paranormal and similar superstitious nonsense goes up with education. (Or is that it goes down with education until the PhD level, at which point it jumps?)

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