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In this study, we, more specifically, identified as knowledge such conceptions about the world which at the present time are regarded as established according to accepted scientific standards. These conceptions, however, may be shown to be wrong in the future. With ignorance we mean lack of knowledge in a broad sense, that is, in relation to everything possible to know.

Bibliographie “Science et ignorance”

More specifically it has been argued that the more you know about an area, the more you realize you do not know e. Thus, it is argued that new knowledge gives a person more possibilities to identify new unknowns. Following this line of thinking, experts should be more aware of their ignorance than novices. However, we know of no empirical research pertaining to this conclusion.

The present study compared the knowledge assessments of experts and novices. In order to cover different scientific traditions, the four disciplines history, medicine, physics, and psychology were selected for the study. For example, psychology and physics may differ in that physics has a clearer consensus regarding its core content than psychology Howell et al. However, the notion of expertise is somewhat vague. In expert research it has been argued that it takes about 10 years to become an expert in a field Hayes, ; Ericsson, , although the results in other studies have indicated that this time may be shorter for more gifted persons Hambrick et al.

In a somewhat insufficient attempt to approximate this, experts in the present study were defined as persons with a Ph. Fisher and Kail differentiated between passive and formal expertise where passive expertise is acquired through every-day life experience and formal expertise through many years of study of some topic. The experts in the present study clearly belong to the formal type. Out of the various dimensions of epistemic beliefs see e.

Most research on epistemological beliefs has used students or adolescents as participants and the present study contributes by also investigating experts in different disciplines. Thus, by including persons with a Ph. In order to test the idea that more knowledge is associated with more perceived ignorance e. Hypothesis 3 was that experts would show a lower level of belief in certainty of knowledge than novices. This is in line with research on the development of epistemological beliefs Perry, ; Kuhn et al.

On the basis of this research it is reasonable to expect that the experts would show a higher level of epistemological development than the novices and thus lower belief in certainty of knowledge.

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For people with a high level of belief in certainty of knowledge the task to establish knowledge is likely to seem simpler than for people with less belief in the certainty of knowledge. Given a higher level of belief in certainty of knowledge it would thus seem reasonable to be prepared to believe that more knowledge has been secured out of all possible knowledge to find. Study 1 examined how experts and novices judged their ignorance when asked to think about what they do not know within a specific area and they were also asked how much is known in the same areas.

In addition, ratings of belief in certainty of knowledge were studied. The participants were novices and experts from nine Swedish universities. The experts had an average of Data was collected using a web-based questionnaire. In the first part of the questionnaire the participants assessed their own ignorance, that is, how much knowledge they do not have of everything there is to know for a number of subareas in each of four disciplines. In the next part of the questionnaire, they assessed how much is known in a number of subareas in each of the four disciplines.

The four disciplines history, medicine, physics, and psychology were represented by 18 sub-disciplines see Appendix A. Participants assessed both their own knowledge, and how much knowledge is known, for all 18 sub-disciplines in their own discipline and for 6 sub-disciplines within each of the other three disciplines these sub-disciplines were the same for all participants; see Appendix A. In total, the survey consisted of 36 knowledge assessment items for each of the two types of knowledge assessments own ignorance, knowledge in disciplines.

The order of the different knowledge assessments as well as the sub-disciplines was counterbalanced with the exception that all participants judged their own discipline field first. A high value indicates a high belief in certainty of knowledge and a lower value indicates a more relativistic view. E-mail addresses were collected from the departments relating to history, medicine, physics, and psychology at Swedish universities.

Experts and novices were contacted through their e-mail addresses with an invitation to participate in the web-based questionnaire. Those who participated were included in the draw for a gift certificate of 1, SEK at the time approximately USD. The questionnaire took about 10 min to answer.

The invitation was sent to 2, persons and a reminder 1 week later. The initial response rate was Data from participants who chose to cancel the form, or had more than five unanswered questions were excluded. The final response rate was More specifically, Mean and standard deviations for the four types of knowledge assessments in percentages , separately for experts and novices, in Studies 1 and 2. To test the hypotheses we conducted analyses of variance.

Theoretically a MANOVA should have been used to analyze the data, however, due to presence of multicollinearity between the dependent variables; this type of analyses was not performed. The dependent variables own ignorance within own discipline , knowledge within own discipline , own ignorance within other disciplines , knowledge within other disciplines , and belief in certainty of knowledge BCKS were therefore analyzed separately. The BCKS ratings were included as a covariate when this measure was found to be correlated with the knowledge assessments. Hierarchical regression analysis was not used due to that the discipline variable does not have a clear reference group or logical order, which makes the interpretation of the correlation coefficients more difficult.

Finally, correlations between BCKS ratings and knowledge assessments were analyzed separately for experts and novices. The covariate, i. Mean scores for experts and novices in the different disciplines with respect to their assessments of knowledge in their own discipline in Study 1. Bivariate correlations between belief in certainty of knowledge and the four types of knowledge assessments. In order to explore if ratings of ignorance differ from ratings of knowledge, we conducted a second study, replicating Study 1 with the exception that the participants in Study 2 were asked to rate their knowledge instead of their ignorance as in Study 1.

A similar framing manipulation has previously been used in a study by Allwood and Granhag , where they concluded that the knowledge assessments were unaffected by this manipulation. Therefore, in line with these findings, we expected Study 2 to replicate the results from Study 1. The participants were novices and experts from 17 Swedish universities. The response scale was the same in both studies. Study 2 was conducted in the same way as Study 1. Individuals who had participated in Study 1 were excluded. The invitation, with reminder, was sent to 1, individuals. Just as in Study 1, we excluded participants who decided to cancel the questionnaire or had more than five unanswered questions.

BCKS was included as a covariate when it was found to be significantly correlated with the knowledge assessments. Correlations between BCKS ratings and knowledge assessments were analyzed separately for experts and novices.

“Skepticism” and Ignorance

Mean scores for experts and novices in the different disciplines with respect to their assessments of their own knowledge outside their own discipline in Study 2. In order to study potential disciplinary differences we included participants from history, medicine, physics, and psychology. If so, experts in an area should rate themselves as more ignorant and less knowledgeable in that area compared to novices Hypothesis 1.

In contrast to our expectation, the results, over both studies, showed that the experts rated their own knowledge higher than the novices rated their own knowledge, irrespective of whether they assessed their ignorance or their knowledge. Although this result refuted our hypothesis, it is in line with the expected actual knowledge level of experts and novices. The knowledge assessments in this study can be seen as global judgments involving a smaller or larger knowledge area. This type of judgment has in research on confidence judgments been found to be associated with a broader range of considerations by the person making the judgment, compared with item specific judgments where the person considers matters more specific to the item Sniezek and Buckley, Following this reasoning, the same considerations may have led novices to decrease their knowledge ratings.

We also expected experts to rate what is known within their own discipline out of all there is to know lower compared to the novices Hypothesis 2. Studies 1 and 2 showed no support for this hypothesis.


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Overall, with the exception of physics in Study 1 where the experts rated the knowledge as greater , experts and novices did not differ with respect to their perception of how much is known in their discipline. Instead, other ways of thinking about ignorance might be more fruitful to use, for example walking in a thick jungle where it is difficult to see the environment.

However, this tendency was small in psychology and medicine and was reversed in history. Thus, it seems fair to conclude that this result is apparent only for physics. Nevertheless, this finding is interesting in its own right, considering reports that at least some researchers in physics at the end of the 19th century thought that most of what there is to know on a general level in physics was known.

In this context it is also worth to note that, in line with our expectation, the framing of the assessment question in terms of ignorance Study 1 or knowledge Study 2 did not influence the results very much since Study 2 to a large extent replicated the results of Study 1. It is no surprise, therefore, that the small minority of well-informed voters is much better able to process new political information and more resistant to manipulation than is the uninformed mass public.

Finally, it is important to note that the level of political knowledge in the American electorate has increased only very slightly, if at all, since the beginning of mass survey research in the late s. A relatively stable level of extreme ignorance has persisted even in the face of massive increases in educational attainment and an unprecedented expansion in the quantity and quality of information available to the general public at little cost. This striking failure throws doubt on the expectation of political theorists from John Stuart Mill onward that increased availability of formal education can create the informed electorate that the democratic ideal requires.

Individual-level voter ignorance seems deeply rooted, perhaps ineradicable. This part considers recent evidence of widespread political ignorance in the United States. I consider limited data available from the current election cycle, as well as more systematic data from the time of the election. The analysis of voter ignorance during the election is based on data from the National Election Study, an extensive nationwide survey of more than 1, respondents that included 31 political knowledge items covering a wide range of subjects.

We do not as yet have a large-scale comprehensive data set on political knowledge in the current election cycle. However, Table 1 presents evidence from a number of recent surveys that indicates extensive political ignorance on major issues in the current campaign. The available data cover a number of basic questions related to widely discussed issues that are currently prominent in both the press and political debate.

This survey result probably actually understates the number of respondents who know little or nothing about the act. The survey evidence also indicates considerable ignorance about various hot-button domestic and foreign policy issues. Despite widespread press coverage of large recent job gains,33 the majority of respondents in a June 7 poll mistakenly believed that there had been a net loss of jobs in Particularly significant is the fact that, on many issues, the majority is not only ignorant of the truth but actively misinformed.

Whether those misconceptions will have an impact on the outcome in November remains to be seen. The data in Table 1 should not be taken as proof that the public is universally ignorant on every issue. Some basic facts about current public policy are well known. For example, 82 percent know that there is currently a federal budget deficit, and 79 percent know that the deficit has increased during the last four years. Nonetheless the evidence compiled in Table 1 does show that majorities are ignorant of numerous basic facts about some of the most important and most widely debated issues at stake in the present election.

That result is particularly striking in view of the extremely close and controversial nature of the contest and the high level of press coverage many of those issues have received. The limited evidence of widespread ignorance in the current election cycle is powerfully reinforced by much more systematic data from the election provided by the National Election Survey.

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Undertaken during every election year since , the NES is generally considered the most thorough social scientific survey of the U. The NES contained a total of 31 political knowledge questions. They are listed in Table 2 along with the percentage of respondents giving correct answers. Nearly all of the 31 survey items identified in Table 2 are quite basic in nature and would have been well-known to political elites and activists at the time. Most addressed issues that were widely debated during the campaign, including environmental policy, government spending on services, abortion, and policy toward African Americans.

Several questions related to factual matters relevant to the record of the Clinton administration, for which presidential candidate Al Gore and the Democratic Party more generally attempted to claim a share of credit. Moreover, previous studies have found that political knowledge in one area is highly inter-correlated with knowledge in others. Thus, we can be reasonably confident that individuals who scored well on the 31 items in the NES also possess greater political knowledge on other matters than those who scored low. The average knowledge level in the NES was roughly similar to that detected in earlier studies and generally low.

On average, respondents answered correctly only About 25 percent of respondents got 8. Since 17 of the 31 questions had only three possible answers, two had only two possible answers, one more had two correct answers out of a possible three, and several others could also potentially be guessed with lower probabilities of success, a score of 8. Nonetheless, it is possible to argue that the average knowledge level revealed in the NES is not too low because the average respondent did achieve correct answers on almost half the questions 46 percent.

This claim is flawed for two reasons. First, with minor exceptions, the items in the survey represent very basic political knowledge, without which it is difficult or impossible to place more complex and specific knowledge in useful context. Knowledgeable political activists and even citizens who follow politics reasonably closely would probably be able to answer all but a tiny handful of the questions correctly.

The second reason for pessimism regarding the NES results is that they probably actually overestimate current American political knowledge.

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That overestimation is the result of two factors. First, surveys in general somewhat overestimate the amount of political information possessed by the public because of the possibility of guessing by respondents and because more knowledgeable citizens may be over-represented among those surveyed. The average respondent in the NES got only about 6 more correct answers out of 31 than would be expected as a result of random guessing. Thus, it seems likely that many respondents who did not know the answer to various questions attempted to guess, especially on those items that had only two or three possible answers.

Second, three of the five items with the highest percentage of correct answers are personal information about candidates in the election that has little or no value for understanding politics more generally. Those three items are the home states of George W. Eliminating the three high scoring low-value items and two other similar questions, which produced much lower percentages of correct answers, produces an average score of Table 3 summarizes the aggregate results of three knowledge scales from the NES. Depending on which scale is used, this group constitutes from 25 percent to 35 percent of the American public.

This part critically assesses the most important of the various shortcuts to informed voting proposed in the literature on the subject: information from daily life, political parties, cues from opinion leaders, retrospective voting, issue publics, and the so-called miracle of aggregation. Although it would be foolish to deny that some helpful information can be derived from ordinary life, its usefulness to otherwise ill-informed voters is greatly overestimated. Three major limitations of such information are particularly important.

First, by definition, this approach is of no help in dealing with the many political issues that the vast majority of voters do not encounter in daily life. That possibility cannot be ruled out without substantive issue knowledge going beyond personal experience. Most important of all, substantive knowledge is required to determine whether or not a particular personal experience really is the result of public policy and, if so, which political actors are responsible. Ill-informed voters attempting to make political judgments on the basis of personal experience may fall into egregious errors.

Even with respect to unemployment and inflation, basic economic issues with which most people have substantial personal experience, ill-informed voters tend to make spectacular errors. Such misperception apparently played a major role in swinging the election against incumbent president George Herbert Walker Bush. Poorly informed voters are more likely than well-informed ones to make sweeping generalizations from personal experience with unemployment but less likely to make accurate connections between experience and policy.

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If errors of this magnitude occur in the cases of inflation and unemployment, even more serious mistakes can be expected with other, more remote, issues. One still needs to know to what extent incumbents are responsible for current rates and whether or not their opponents are likely to do better. In and of itself, information from daily life is unlikely to be of much help in making such decisions. The idea that political parties can help voters economize on information costs has a long and venerable lineage, dating back to Democratic Party leader and later President Martin Van Buren, founder of the first modern mass-based party.

This claim is not entirely without merit. To this general argument, V. Appealing as it is, the argument obscures as much as it reveals. But it is difficult to do so without substantial underlying substantive knowledge. The voter cannot get around this dilemma simply by aggregating large amounts of experience, since it is unlikely that a given voter has been following politics long enough to experience more than two or three governments headed by any one party.

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Most dramatic, existing research on parties has largely ignored an important way that the existence of political parties may actually reduce the flow of information to voters relative to a nonpartisan electoral system. If politicians are organized into relatively centralized parties, the number of effective political actors in the system is reduced; in most democratic political systems, there are rarely more than four or five major parties at any given time.

As in any other competitive situation, the smaller the number of competitors, the greater the chance of successful collusion among them. In any situation in which the number of major parties is small, especially in a two-party system such as that in the United States, there is the possibility that the parties may conspire to take an issue of potential interest to the public off the political agenda when doing so benefits political elites at the expense of the rest of the citizenry.

Such a cartel also diminishes the flow of information about the issue to the public, since it is no longer discussed by candidates running for office and the media are less likely to cover it. Empirical examples of such collusion are not difficult to come by. The very first modern- style party system was established in part to take the issue of slavery off the political agenda in this way.

That cartel lasted for about 25 years.


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  • Other cases from a variety of political systems could easily be cited. Interparty collusion can be broken by the entry of new parties into the system, just as the Republican Party eventually emerged to challenge collusion over slavery. But organizing a major new party is extremely costly, and the existing parties can defend their oligopoly position through their ability to manipulate the electoral and campaign finance systems. This argument should not be interpreted to imply support for a nonpartisan political system; such systems have their own serious shortcomings.

    Nonetheless, it is striking that a generation of scholars heavily influenced by economic theories of competition should have maintained a largely uncritical enthusiasm for strong political parties without taking account of a serious objection derived from those same theories. Although real, the informational benefits of parties are almost surely exaggerated by conventional wisdom. If the vast bulk of the electorate is ignorant, perhaps it can follow the lead of the knowledgeable minority of political activists, or opinion leaders. That line of argument is one of the most common in the literature on shortcuts.

    Instead of keeping close track of issues themselves, voters can respond to cues issued by political activists whose values are similar to their own. What is important is that there are perhaps 5 percent of voters who are activists and news junkies who do play close attention. If they see that something is seriously wrong in the country, they sound the alarm, and then ordinary people start paying attention.

    Unfortunately, the strategy of following cues from opinion leaders creates at least as many difficulties for ignorant voters as it solves. From the perspective of the principal, it is difficult to conceive of a more difficult principal- agent relationship than that between ignorant voters and highly knowledgeable, well-organized political activists.

    Where voter interests and activist interests coincide closely, the difficulties of monitoring need not be so acute. But that state of affairs is far from common. Political activists differ greatly from the general population on a wide range of demographic and socioeconomic characteristics; they also tend to be more extreme in their views. Most important of all, opinion leaders acquire interests that diverge sharply from those of voters simply by virtue of becoming opinion leaders. Even when voters are aware of the incentives for exaggeration and attempt to discount activist claims as a result, they have no way of knowing how much discounting is required.

    Even if there exists a subset of opinion leaders whose interests do coincide with those of a given voter, that voter still faces an extraordinarily difficult problem in determining who they are. Neither of these is possible without considerable substantive voter knowledge of the issues. Without such knowledge, opinion leaders are as likely to be misleading as they are to be informative.

    The retrospective-voting hypothesis holds that voters judge politicians by past performance rather than current promises. There are at least three reasons to doubt that the answer is yes. Even if option 1 is the case, the voter may not be able to determine whether current conditions are positive or negative—if, for example, temporary economic sacrifice might be a necessary precondition for future progress.

    Even where the voter does know that a given outcome is the result of government policy, ignorance of the structure of government may make it difficult for him to decide which elected officials deserve credit or blame. Under an American divided government or a European coalition government, the voter may not even be able to tell which party is responsible. Finally, even when the voter knows both that a given outcome is the result of government policy and which leaders are responsible, that is still not quite enough to make an informed choice. The voter will also want to know whether the opposition party is likely to do better.

    Using a representative sample of BC citizens, we implemented a Web-based survey to assess awareness, knowledge and support of these existing policies. As a starting point, we found that BC citizens are almost completely unaware of climate policies. The remaining policies were essentially unknown by 98 to 99 percent of the sample. For example, only 1 person in knew that BC has a low-carbon fuel standard. We tried again with a closed-ended question, more like a multiple-choice exam where we listed real and fake policies and asked respondents to select the policies that they thought actually existed in BC.

    The respondents were more accurate in this exercise. The carbon tax was again the most well-known policy. But the majority of respondents still could not correctly identify the other policies in place. Despite this lack of awareness, the vast majority of respondents 80 to 90 percent stated that they would vote in favour of four of the policies in a referendum.

    Only the carbon tax was controversial, though a slight majority were still supportive 56 percent. It is interesting to note that the most well-known policy—the carbon tax—was found to have the least support. In other words, we found no evidence for the knowledge deficit model. In fact, information provision might actually reduce citizen support. Most citizens are unaware of most of the climate policies in place, probably because the policies are not particularly controversial to start with. Indeed, we find that once we explain the policies, stated support is very high.

    It is simply not memorable. We might say that such a policy is implied to be politically acceptable, even though citizen awareness is essentially nil. Should we be concerned that widespread public ignorance is undemocratic? In an ideal world, we would like every citizen to be perfectly informed about every environmental problem, social issue and policy solution. Citizens have to filter and prioritize the information and issues they pay attention to.