Bryan Caplan  

How Arthur Lupia Changed My Mind

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Today the renowned political scientist Arthur Lupia visited GMU.  His mission: Attack the quality of academic research on voter competence.  His arguments changed my mind, but in the opposite of the intended direction.  Given Lupia's intelligence, expertise, and effort, his presentation was shockingly weak.  Highlights:

1. Lupia spent about half of his talk arguing that ability to correctly answer standard political knowledge questions is neither necessary nor sufficient for voter competence.  For example, voters who know nothing about politicians' voting records might "vote correctly" (i.e., vote "as if" they were fully informed) simply by voting on party lines.

My reply: Every serious researcher on this topic has long known this.  They almost never talk about knowledge that voters must have to "vote correctly."  They almost never talk about knowledge that guarantees that voters will vote correctly.  Instead, they talk about knowledge that raises the probability of voting correctly. 

2. Lupia complains that voter competence research ignores the crucial question: Would voters actually change their positions if they gained additional knowledge?  Again, this claim is bizarre.  This is the whole point of the massive empirical political science literature on "enlightened preferences."  Scott Althaus has written an exhaustive survey of research that estimates how much knowledge affects policy preferences.  The punchline is that knowledge has big systematic effects on policy preferences - and by any plausible standard does indeed raise the probability of voting correctly.

3. When pressed, Lupia is of course well-aware of the enlightened preference literature, but it was hard to get him to explain why it was not a satisfactory answer to his complaints.  Eventually, though, he started airing some of the dirty laundry of political knowledge research.  Since he's the Principal Investigator of the American National Election Studies, Lupia has many entertaining anecdotes of sloppy scholarship.  It turns out, for example, that free response questions are often poorly scored.  Take the question, "Who is Tony Blair?"  Respondents were marked wrong for answering "The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom."

This is all useful to know.  Higher-quality data is a good thing.  Yet Lupia neglects a crucial statistical point: Higher measurement error leads to attenuation bias.  The noisier your measure of political knowledge, the more likely you are to falsely conclude that political knowledge doesn't matter.  The fact that researchers find large knowledge effects with low-quality measures implies that the true effect is probably even larger.

As a good Bayesian, I try not to overuse the cliche, "I'm even more convinced of my position than I was before."  Lupia's talk leaves me no choice but to state the cliche.  Most of his arguments attacked views that no serious researcher believes.  The rest actually showed that his critics are understating their case. 

O ye defenders of voter competence - is this all you've got?!

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
david writes:

What was the correct answer for "Who is Tony Blair?", assuming this was asked prior to Brown becoming PM?

Les writes:

David, the correct answer depends on how long before Brown the question was asked.

For example, in Victorian times the correct answer might be Disraeli or Gladstone. During World War II the correct answer might be Churchill.

david writes:

... Tony Blair is Churchill? ;)

scott clark writes:

david, that was the right answer. The point of the story was that the right answers were marked wrong, leading the researchers to mistakenly claim voter knowledge doesn't matter, which Bryan is saying that that is argument in favor of his position.

Now if they had asked "Who is John Galt?" they would have gotten some results they could learn from.

Nathan Smith writes:

I didn't manage to make this point as well as I wanted to during the presentation last night so let me try again here.

Suppose Voter A is strongly pro-life, such that this trumps all other issues. In that case, *for this voter*, all views and knowledge about economic or national security issues are irrelevant.

Suppose Voter B is mildly pro-choice. He weighs abortion among many other issues.

For Voter A to be competent, if he knows that the Republican candidate is pro-life and the Democrat is pro-choice, that's all he needs to know. This information is necessary for him to be competent, and may be sufficient.

Voter B needs more information.

These logic issues could be worked into a regression specification. But I strongly suspect they usually aren't. Certainly everything I've heard you say on the subject in their defense is consistent with regressions not being smart enough to take these factors into account.

Ryan Vann writes:

This must have been one of those things you had to be in attendance to get. That, or I am just a dunce.

Was the argument essentially that a fully informed Democrat/Republican/etc is just as likely to vote for a Democrat/Republican/etc as a non-informed D/R/Etc? If so, it seems like a pretty useless speech. It should be obvious that affliations reflect voting preferences moreso than political knowledge.

GU writes:

Lupia et al. are only trying to prove that people can use various "cues" to vote as they would if they were fully informed. In other words, x is a competent voter if he votes the same as if he was fully informed (but x probably is not fully informed; x can use heuristics to figure out which party he prefers).

What is so frustrating about this work is that it attempts to ignore all normative aspects of voting. A true Nazi who votes for the Nazi party is a competent voter under this model. One of the purposes of this research (usually unstated) is to further the case for more democracy. It ignores the fact that for many people, neither Dem. or Repub. come close to representing their views. It also ignores the consequences of voter ignorance/irrationality about which Prof. Caplan has written so eloquently.

Democracy is great for people with views that are close to the median voter's, i.e. political moderates. Others, not so much, especially in today's world, where the median voter prefers less freedom/more government.

Garrett Harmon writes:

The correct answer to the Tony Blair question is "The Prime Minister of Great Britain." The United Kingdom was listed as an incorrect answer because Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, but Tony Blair is not the PM of it.

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