In response to information overload, many Americans have seemingly stopped trying to stay informed. Surveys show that people in the US remain woefully ignorant about the rudiments of politics, policy and government. Filmmaker Michael Moore calls the US “a society of ignorant and illiterate people.” Columnist L.Z. Granderson suggests requiring voters to take a test of basic knowledge before allowing them to cast ballots. These complaints about creeping stupidity come from both sides of the political aisle as well as from many corners of society.
To understand how to overcome public ignorance, civic educators must understand the concepts of “information,” “knowledge” and “competence.” Information is the most basic building block. It consists of facts – data or ideas that a teacher can convey to a pupil. Material doesn’t need to be factually accurate to qualify as information. For instance, the statement, “I believe blue is the best color” is information. Even bogus data and inaccurate assertions can act as information.
“For every person at every waking moment, attention is an incredibly scarce resource.”
Information builds knowledge. People create knowledge through memory and through understanding how facts and concepts relate. Two types of memory are relevant to civic decisions: “Declarative memory” enables you to recall facts, like a friend’s name or the answer to a trivia question. “Non-declarative memory,” which is more complex, involves remembering skills, processes and emotions; it tends to build up through repetition. Educators also must understand the idea of competence, the application of knowledge to a specific task. For instance, a jury is competent if it convicts a guilty defendant and exonerates an innocent one.
The typical prescription for addressing American ignorance is to convey more information, as if memorizing facts and dates will make the electorate knowledgeable and lead to a nirvana of enlightened voters, jurors and lawmakers. Information itself is subject to political bias. The authors of most lists of historical facts and names believe that the information they’ve amassed qualifies the person who gets it to be a competent citizen. But there are thousands of such lists and each one reflects the beliefs of its author. While information might seem neutral on its face, people rarely analyze facts and figures in an unbiased manner. In the abortion debate, for instance, abortion foes stress information about the fetus, while abortion supporters stress information about the mother’s health. Two different people will naturally weigh the same information differently. This reality means that different people can value identical sets of facts in opposing ways. As James Madison wrote, “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed.”
“Human brains have evolved to direct attention to a select set of environmental stimuli and to block out just about everything else.”
Faced with a flood of information, voters and lawmakers often rely on “cues” to make decisions. Party affiliation is a common shortcut. Voters might not know everything about a candidate or a referendum, but they cast their ballots according to their political party affiliation. By the same token, lawmakers don’t have time to read every bill that they vote on. They rely on cues from their parties or analysis from advocacy groups that align with their ideology.
The Educator’s Dilemma
Civic educators set out to increase voters’ and lawmakers’ knowledge and, ultimately, their competence. But reality soon intrudes on any educator who is trying to teach: human attention spans are “extraordinarily limited.” When people learn, they form new memories. That requires paying attention. Many educators hope their teaching leads students to change their beliefs.
“There are always multiple phenomena competing to get through any person’s very limited attentive bottlenecks.”
Teachers must understand they’re not just conveying information; they’re also hoping to spur an electrochemical stimulus in their students’ brains. If this biological activity doesn’t happen, beliefs don’t change. If you want to teach your students that a wagon can be red, you must train their brains. The human brain’s working memory allows people to pay attention to only a few things at once. Consider working memory as a car lot with only seven parking spots. Information that the teacher deems important will, ideally, take those seven spots. But all seven spots in a student’s working memory parking lot aren’t necessarily open for educational material. The color of the teacher’s shirt could fill a spot, as could the blinking sign above the classroom door or the hum of the air conditioner. The listener’s brain makes associations based on the teacher’s statements, but it also wanders and that wandering also vies for attention.
“An implication of working memory’s limits is that prospective learners are forced to ignore almost every piece of information to which they are exposed.”
Learners can heed only a fraction of what a teacher or speaker says during a class or presentation. This has nothing to do with the teacher’s acumen or the pupil’s eagerness to learn. The limitation that people can learn only a few things at once is a biological reality. Another variable is the student’s level of knowledge about the topic. An experienced chess player can look at a board and see the next three moves. A novice looking at the same board wonders what the horse does.
Communicating Scientific Information
Scientists face a particular challenge in communicating information to audiences of nonexperts. Scientists study complex problems that they discuss in highly technical ways. When a person who is not a scientist listens to a scientist discussing a scientific problem, the listener doesn’t understand the many-faceted relationships the speaker is describing. Even if the nonexpert is an intent pupil, his or her working memory simply doesn’t have enough open spots to accommodate all the new data the scientist is delivering. This biological reality works against the scientist, who appears to be speaking of arcane, impenetrable material that isn’t accessible to normal people.
“Students are more likely to remember information that they perceive as advancing their core concerns.”
In the case of climate change, scientists face an additional problem: People have a hard time connecting their actions today with concrete results in the future. You can tell people that paying more for energy or using less of it might slow the pace of global warming at some undetermined point in the future. But since no one knows exactly to what degree conserving now might affect future outcomes, even those who want to help stop global warming seem to lack enough incentive to act. Those inclined to believe global warming isn’t a real concern dismiss factual information about it because it doesn’t conform to their beliefs. “Motivated reasoning” can help civic educators tailor their message. Focusing on scientific information or climate theory will not spur audiences to action. The speaker must connect in a more emotional way. For instance, audiences will pay attention to dire predictions if the possible outcomes affect them. Melting polar ice caps are far away, but the threat of potential flooding in your house and at your kids’ school will generate a reaction.
“We almost always prefer quick and simple explanations over more detailed and accurate ones.”
People also tend to act as if they’re paying attention even if they aren’t. They offer nods and other polite affirmations to convey congeniality toward the speaker. The nod can indicate comprehension and attention. But people also nod politely to extricate themselves from a tiresome interaction. Because the physical cues are the same in either case, an expert speaker can misinterpret his audience’s body language as rapt attention. This is especially true when a student can benefit from seeming to pay attention to a teacher. College students, for instance, might believe that showing a professor their most attentive faces will improve their grades or job references. In the private sector, an in-house expert’s status can cause employees to act as if they’re hanging on every word.
The task of teaching new or complex information grows even tougher when the topic at hand is politicized. In this context, audiences subject any claim to intense scrutiny, particularly if the speaker lacks credibility. If the issue is climate change, the speaker must establish his or her bona fides. Consider the television program Earth: The Operator’s Manual, which used science and eye-catching images to describe the dangers of climate change.
“Declarative and nondeclarative memories together constitute the knowledge that people have when thinking about politics.”
The show devoted airtime to the background of host Richard Alley, a geologist. Early in the program, Alley described himself as a churchgoing Republican who once worked for an oil company. Viewers predisposed to believe Alley’s message might not care about his politics or religious beliefs. He directed his biographical sketch at climate skeptics. Alley wanted to establish common ground with the viewers who were likely to be the most skeptical. He sought to disprove that climate scientists are too liberal to look at the facts dispassionately.
“What People Hear”
Conservative wordsmith Frank Luntz has credibility when he communicates about political issues. Luntz created the phrase “death panels” to denigrate the groups that under one Obamacare proposal would have decided which medical procedures insurance would cover. Luntz’s book Words That Work conveyed such lessons as “use small words,” “use small sentences” and “it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” Even credible speakers can find their credibility strained if they veer too far from their established expertise. For instance, a pastor who wants to sermonize about climate change shouldn’t do it. Suddenly beginning to preach about global warming might lead congregants to wonder what a clergy member knows about climate science. The preacher should offer a standby homily about shared sacrifice and fit in an environmental message at the end. This exemplifies the concept of “building a short bridge” rather than a long one.
Getting People to Learn
Classroom educators must recognize the biological reality that “attention is an incredibly scarce resource.” To maximize your audience members’ attention, deliver information in a way that connects with them. Innate biology allows people to ignore most of the stimuli around them. Educators must recognize that students learn only when intensely motivated. The teacher must present data that students can grasp and that plays off their motivation to get good grades. In particular, scholars presenting technical material to nontechnical audiences must adjust their communication styles.
“Words and images in politicized environments are scrutinized, interpreted and attacked in ways that rarely, if ever, occur in other educational settings.”
Your audience members might not even realize that they’re filtering information. People aren’t necessarily aware that their values and beliefs influence how they attend to and process information. They might be unable to describe the values by which they’re judging your message. People on opposite sides of an issue often judge information through different value systems. When an official makes a political decision, a person whose values are in disagreement with the decision may decry the decision maker’s “ignorance.” Values influence how your audience digests your message. Values can cause people to disdain some facts and emphasize others. And, if people feel a message contradicts their moral standards, they will not give it their attention.
“Given the frequent presence of deep value conflicts among political combatants, understanding how to build source credibility is critical for those who seek to increase knowledge and competence in politicized environments.”