Tuesday, December 16, 2008



From the outset I wanted to answer two very specific statistical questions:

1. When it comes to American foreign policy, is there a statistical difference between the policy preferences of informed and uninformed voters?

H1: µ≠µ

H2: µ=µ

2. Is there a correlation between a voter’s political knowledge and a specific set of foreign policy preferences?

H1: r ≥ .50

H2: r ≤ .49

For both questions 1 and 2 I am unable to reject the null hypothesis. In the case of question 1 I could demonstrate no difference between the answers given by the most informed and least informed. In the case of question 2 I was unable to demonstrate a relationship between the informed score and any particular policy preferences.

Is there Wisdom in Crowds?

In The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan explores and then quickly dismisses the notion that there is a “miracle of aggregation”. The miracle of aggregation is the concept that, if you get enough people to answer a question, the aggregate answer is more likely to be correct than the answers of any given individual; it is the concept that there is some sort of “wisdom of crowds”. As Caplan put it, “It reads like an alchemist’s recipe: Mix 99 parts folly and 1 part wisdom to get a compound as good as unadulterated wisdom” (Caplan 8). Caplan asserts that the miracle of aggregation does not apply to politics because there is a systematic error; that is, low information voters have an anti-foreign, anti-market bias (Caplan 10).

My results seem to demonstrate at least a nominal wisdom of crowds, or at least wisdom of the crowd I surveyed. For example, although the mean information score was 7.40 out of 14, or 53%, the aggregate information scores of the group 11 (11 questions where the most common answer was correct) out of 14, or 79%. And the pro trade or pro immigration answer was by far the most common answer on the questions that concerned those issues as well. As I mentioned earlier, my sample did not perfectly reflect the demographic profile of the United States, so I do not claim that my results refute the findings of a well-established economist, but my findings certainly raise a number of questions about relationship between information and policy preference and about the potential wisdom of crowds.

Opportunities for Further Research:

This survey raises almost as many questions as it answers. I touched on a few of the issues I would like to explore further during my analysis, but here are a few areas that I think warrant further exploration:

1. I would like to see a survey with a sample that is more reflective of the average American. It might also be interesting to see the difference between college students and non-college students.

2. I would like to see a survey where small groups of participants were led in discussion rather than given a multiple-choice questionnaire. I had one participant write notes in the margins of their survey, it would be interesting to see how overall opinion dynamics might change if respondents were not limited to the answers on the test.

3. Related to #2, I would like to see the results if respondents were briefed on the issues prior to questionnaire being handed out. These briefings could take the form of a “mini campaign” with one briefer presenting an “anti” position, and the other briefer presenting a “pro” position on various issues.

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