Democracy and Science in the Face of Human Ignorance and Delusion

Data Science Lecture Series


April 28, 2017
1:10pm to 2:30pm
190 Doe Library
Get Directions

Both democracy and science are under threat, for reasons having to do with both political institutions and the public mind. Science definitionally involves the pursuit of truth using reason and evidence. Democracy, though otherwise defined, benefits greatly from the same cast of mind. Yet this, too often, for too many of us, goes against the grain. Within the domains of both science and public policy (what democracy is supposed to decide), most people are either ignorant of or misinformed about most topics. To some considerable extent, this is unavoidable. We all have limited time to seek, process, or absorb information. We are all likelier to encounter some kinds of information than others. We all sometimes reason faultily. We all have our biases, sometimes leading us to accept falsehoods. Some of us, moreover, seem uninterested in striving to do better, clinging to fixed beliefs in defiance of logic or evidence. Human cognition, defined as either product (what we believe) or process (how we arrive at what we believe) is always imperfect. But the degree to which it exhibits ignorance; misinformation; and, shall we call it, knowledge resistance does seem to vary across cultures, historical circumstances, and individuals. At the moment, at least where the domains of both science and public policy are concerned, these cognitive deficiencies seem either more prevalent than usual or, “thanks” to our institutions, more influential than usual.

These are broad concerns. I have long been interested in political knowledge and more recently have added an interest in political misinformation. Still more recently, I have been motivated by obvious trends and events to widen my focus—to a larger set of issues, both near and far, that I am still very much thinking about. Here, I shall review and present some of my own and other research about political knowledge and misinformation, their origins, and their effects. More tentatively, I shall also consider the role of political institutions in promoting and channeling these cognitive deficiencies. Finally, I shall address the prospects for amelioration, among other things describing the process and results of deliberative polling, a process I have collaborated in designing. Deliberative polling gives a picture of what the public would think about policy issues if it knew distinctly more about them and had more time to consider them in the light of more a balanced array of information and arguments. The setup is intentionally counterfactual, and I do not think the process can be scaled up (from its representative samples of a few hundred toward a whole sizable citizenry) very far, but the results may at least provide some suggestive input to a broader consideration of what can be done.      


Robert C. Luskin

Associate Professor of Government, University of Texas at Austin

Robert C. Luskin is associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin; research advisor at the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University; Chercheur Associé at CEVIPOF, Sciences Po–Paris; and a member of the Comité Scientifique International of the Enquête Électorale Française 2017. In collaboration with James Fishkin, he has helped design and apply the method of deliberative polling. He has served on the editorial boards of Political Analysis and the American Political Science Review and has published articles on political knowledge, deliberation, statistical methods, and other topics in the American Political Science Review, the American Journal of Political Science, the Journal of Politics, the British Journal of Political SciencePolitical Studies, and Political Analysis, among other scholarly journals.