Bryan Caplan  

Is Ignorant Dogmatism Possible? I'm Afraid So.

The Lamps Are Going Out... Other People's Money...
In a forthcoming issue of Critical Review, several of my critics basically say, "Make up your mind, Bryan.  Are voters ignorant, or are they dogmatic?"  My response: "Both."  It may seem strange, but it doesn't take a lot of knowledge to be dogmatic.  In fact, the least educated people are often the most dogmatic.

If you're not convinced, check out the Bible Literacy Report.  In religion as in politics, you don't need to know much to believe fully.

Comments and Sharing

Twitter: Bryan Caplan @bryan_caplan

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Kevin writes:

Not to be a pest, but can you believe 'fully' if you don't know what you believe in? Does that even make sense?

Patrick writes:

Kevin, I respectfully submit that there's a crucial difference between knowing *little* and knowing *nothing*.

Brandon Berg writes:

"It may seem strange, but it doesn't take a lot of knowledge to be dogmatic."

Is the first clause sarcasm? I don't understand the criticism at all. It seems patently obvious to me that dogmatism and ignorance are compatible.

Lance writes:

I don't understand how you drew the conclusion of high school students, who were the ones surveyed in the Bible Literacy Survey, reflecting a dogmatic position when they affiliated themselves as Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, etc.

It's not like the surveyors asked 'what's the significance of the Road to Damascus' and then asked whether they believe in the Immaculate Conception, or the doctrine of the Trinity. The main issue of this survey, it seems, is to raise awareness of the importance of Bible literacy in understanding English literature more deeply.

Would you argue that partisanship is not the same as dogmatism, if you hold that it is true dogmatism exists at higher levels for people with less education?

For example, Republicans with a college education in one study showed they were more likely to say that global warming was not anthropogenic, than Republicans with only a high school education or less. It's the same way with Democrats.

Gil writes:

I agree with Brandon.

To me they seem not only compatible, but highly correlated.

Andrew Garland writes:

Strong Preferences

My post above talks about another side to this subject. Ironically, people who don't know or can't tell the difference between brands have the strongest loyalty to a brand.


If I Could Tell the Difference, I Wouldn't Be So Sure

I would not have believed it, but I witnessed it. The subject couldn't tell the difference. He didn't want to accept that he couldn't tell the difference. I watched the experiment along with everyone else, and it was fair.

Steve Roth writes:

Andrew Garland on strong preferences: fascinating. But rather a small N (2) in your cited sample.

Bryan: Is this true in politics? Any research out there?

Brandon Berg writes:

On second thought, maybe they're erroneously equating ignorance with conscious agnosticism. That is, if a person is ignorant of a subject and knows this, he's unlikely to have strong opinions on the topic. Dogmatism is not compatible with this type of ignorance. However, the other type of ignorance is "knowing" something that isn't true. This type of ignorance is compatible with (and possibly correlated with) dogmatism, and it seems to be by far the more common type of ignorance when it comes to economics.

Andrew Garland writes:

To Steve Roth,

The sample that I saw was small, but the marketing students were confirming something they were studying, so I trusted their report.

I found these posts that support the conclusion that most people choose brands according to status or story, and not taste.

The other side may be harder to find, confirmation that sensitive tasters don't care much about what they taste, and just enjoy the differences.

The political inference is a guess on my part.

Beer - It's Not the Taste, Stupid

By Tom Dougherty
Taste has nothing to do with it.

How we can possibly say that when we have heard plenty of Bud drinkers, for example, proclaim that the only way Coors would cross their lips is when they are cold and dead because of its taste? You see, in our own blind taste tests, not a single beer drinker could tell which beer was Bud, Coors or Miller. What this means is that there is something else going on in beer brand preference and it is not about taste.

Sticker Shock Upgrades Perception of Plonk

01/14/08 at
The region of the brain associated with subjective perceptions of pleasantness, or orbitofrontal cortex for those in the neurological know, lighted up more strongly in people who thought they were drinking pricier Cabernet Sauvignon, even when they were falsely labeled cheap bottles, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers chose to study wine because of most people’s strongly held notions that price is linked directly to quality. In the study, 20 participants sampled wine while their brains were scanned using a fancy MRI machines. Although the volunteers thought they sampled five different types, participants actually tasted two of the three wines twice. A $90 bottle was tagged with its real price or marked at $10, and the price of a $5 bottle carried its real price or was upped to $45.

The price tag made the difference. Participants’ brain regions that are associated with pleasantness were more active when sipping what they thought was an expensive glass.

greenish writes:

The difference between innocent ignorance (random error) and irrationality (systematic error) was central to the book. How could they miss that?

lwaaks writes:

I am very happy to see Mr. Caplan address this issue (ignorant dogmatism) because, as a huge fan of his book, my adulation was temporarily derailed after reading a critical comment on the Austrian Economists blog by Jeffrey Freidman, editor of Critical Review. Freidman wrote that Caplan underestimates the ignorance of the average voter, meaning that it is not bias but just plain stupidity that determines the average voters political choices. If this is the case, then bias would be a redundant explanation because you cannot believe something to be wrong that you know is true. But I am inclined to believe that ideology/bias plays a part by insulating someone from the facts when they are confronted with them.

Petter writes:

Nice post short and comprehensive. Really love your comment that "Are voters ignorant, or are they dogmatic?" and the answer is both. I agree with this. Some voters don't know the internal game they just vote for the person which they believe will give benefit to them. Nice post :)

fundamentalist writes:

I don’t understand how Caplan conflates teenage ignorance of the Bible with dogmatism. Anyone who knows anything about teenagers knows that they don’t form their own opinions on important topics by research and logic. They don’t have the tools or the confidence to do so. They adopt the opinions of respected authorities.

If anything is an example of ignorant dogmatism it’s Caplan’s attitude toward religion. His posts indicate extreme ignorance of the historical body of debate on God and religion, but that hasn’t dented his dogmatism.

As for voters, of course they’re ignorant of macro economic issues, though not necessarily micro one. They know they’re ignorant and don’t want to spend the time and effort to become informed. So, like teenagers, they lean on respected experts for their opinions. Caplan thesis on voter irrationality says little about voters and volumes about his ignorance of how people make decisions.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top