A (Literally) Fishy Study on Political Ignorance

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a summary of an interesting recent study that uses an experiment conducted on fish to try to claim that there are underappreciated benefits to political ignorance [HT: VC reader John Perkins]:

A team of researchers led by a Princeton University biologist has now studied that question and concluded that without all our know-nothing fellow citizens, things might be even worse.

The team, led by Iain D. Couzin, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, carried out its work with a type of fish known as golden shiners. The group trained some of the fish to associate food with a blue target and trained a smaller number of the fish to associate food with yellow, a color the fish more naturally prefer.

Placed together, most fish pursued yellow targets, suggesting the smaller group’s more intense desire for yellow overwhelmed the larger group’s numerical advantage, Mr. Couzin reported. But as fish without any training were added, the group increasingly favored the blue target, he said.

“A strongly opinionated minority can dictate group choice,” the research team wrote in its report, published in Thursday’s edition of the journal Science. “But the presence of uninformed individuals spontaneously inhibits this process, returning control to the numerical majority.”

The behavior of golden shiners demonstrates “the role of uninformed individuals in achieving democratic consensus amid internal group conflict and informational constraints,” wrote the research team….

In a separate commentary in the same issue, two authors from the University of Washington at Seattle, Carl T. Bergstrom, an associate professor of biology, and Jevin D. West, a biology research associate, said they agreed the work by Mr. Couzin’s group showed that “uninformed agents can promote democratic outcomes in collective decision problems.”

The study is cleverly designed. But I don’t think it actually proves that political ignorance is beneficial. Few doubt that a large majority of ignorant voters can sometimes get its way against a more knowledgeable minority. But that’s precisely why political ignorance is a problem: Other things equal, a more ignorant electorate is likely to make worse decisions than a more knowledgeable one. Under such conditions, the more “democratic” (in the sense of more majoritarian) outcome isn’t necessarily better. Indeed, the more influence the ignorant majority has, the greater the negative impact of their ignorance.

In some situations, the paper’s authors claim, the uninformed are a minority, but they gravitate towards the majority among the rest of the group, thereby making a majoritarian outcome more likely. This, assumes, however, that their ignorance does not itself bias them towards one side of a dispute or the other. This may be true among fish, but is often false among human electorates, where ignorance does not prevent people from holding political opinions and also makes them vulnerable to manipulation. Indeed, ignorance tends to increase the effectiveness of the latter. And relatively ignorant voters can still be highly biased “political fans.”

Even if a more majoritarian outcome is always preferable to a less majoritarian one, that is still consistent with the notion that majoritarian decisions by a relatively well-informed electorate are likely to be better than those made by a more ignorant one. And, regardless of what happened in the case of the fish, a knowledgeable majority in the real world is at least as likely to get its way in real-world democratic processes as a relatively ignorant one.

Furthermore, ignorance sometimes enables a narrow interest group to get its way at the expense of the general public, because the latter is unaware of what is going on. In this article, I explain how this happened in may states that adopted post-Kelo eminent domain reforms. The fish study doesn’t take account of this possibility because there is no body of knowledge known to one group of fish that is unknown to the other that allows the former to exploit the latter for their own benefit.

This is not to deny that there are some cases where political ignorance can have beneficial effects. Consider, for example, a highly knowledgeable electorate with extremely evil values (e.g. – a racist electorate whose primary goal is the desire to oppress some racial minority as much as possible). These voters would be able to choose policies and leaders that achieve their evil objectives more effectively than an equally evil electorate that was more ignorant.

There are also a few other scenarios where political ignorance might turn out to be (relative) bliss; I may discuss some of them in a future post. This study, however, doesn’t shed much light on any of them.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor revisions to this post.