Sunday, 24 September 2017

Are Conservatives More Knowledgeable about Politics?

I suppose Tories have to take good news where they find it these days. Take this study by Harold Clarke, Matt Goodwin, Paul Whiteley and Marianne Stewart via YouGov, for instance. It establishes two things: that people who took to the internet for information about politics in the lead up to this year's general election were more likely to vote Labour. But, more controversially, those who were more clued up about politics tended disproportionately toward the Conservatives. Excuse me?

This is an interesting finding because other studies (a couple of examples) have consistently found correlations between intelligence and a propensity to hold liberal/left views. The problems with these studies is how one defines left and right as well as intelligence itself. Remember, IQ only measures one's ability to do IQ tests after all. Nevertheless, one doesn't have to look too far to note the relationship between greater levels of formal education and left votes. That was the case this year, and is a universal characteristic of electorates in mature liberal democracies.

Therefore the survey work of Clarke et al might be said to go against the grain of established research. According to the study, it found some 60% of people with 'much below average' political knowledge voted Labour, and exactly the same proportion of 'much above average' knowledge voted Conservative. The Tories had commanding leads in this and the 'above average' categories while Labour led 'average', 'below average' and the aforementioned 'much below'. How can we reconcile these findings, for which the field work was done before and after the general election, with the voting patterns by education also seen in the same contest?

It lies in the definition of political knowledge. As this is an important study trumpeted by the BBC and with big names attached to it, one would expect this to be quite robust. Alas. According to the survey methods, they deployed a set of questions that would measure how clued up the respondent is on politics. This comprised their Political Knowledge Index. The questions were:

1. The unemployment rate in the UK is currently less than 5%
2. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is responsible for setting interest rates in the UK
3. In 2016 over 500,000 immigrants came to the UK from the European Union
4. In the UK, anyone who earns less than £11,500 pays no income tax
5. The UK is legally required to leave the European Union by March 2019
6. The minimum voting age for UK general elections is now 16 years of age
7. Any registered voter can obtain a postal vote for a general election by contacting their local council and asking for one
8. The UK currently spends just over one per cent of its gross national income on overseas aid

There's no explanation why these questions were chosen as a convincing barometer of political knowledge. Perhaps they didn't feel the need to supply their reasoning, which in itself is worrying - because these choices are indefensible. This is politics reduced to a pub quiz, a series of disembodied, decontextualised, and reified trivia with little to no use as far as most voters are concerned. First, why these? Why not the names of leading ministers or shadow ministers? Or, even better, the policies of the parties, or whether voters watched party political broadcasts or read material from a range of parties? Surely in terms of political knowledge pertinent to voters these would rank much higher than knowing the competencies of the chancellor vs the Bank of England. As measures of knowledge go, these are spectacularly abysmal choices.

The second issue is the status of knowledge itself. Political science, and I use that term advisedly, has a tendency to conceptualise parties as self-contained things that compete in elections, negotiate with other parties, run governments and so on. Of course, parties do those things and engage as (relatively) disciplined collectives in these activities. Yet the discipline largely brackets the most obvious characteristic, that they're a series of organised social relations with relationships stretching across and reaching deep into the societies playing host to the political systems they inhabit. Parties express and condense interests corresponding to how a given society is stratified, and it follows that political knowledge is always specific depending on the party and the interests in play. Take Jacob Rees-Mogg, for instance. With his Latinate asides and familiarity with Parliamentary arcana, he can demonstrate knowledge about politics. Then take a Labour activist from an inner city district in the north or Scotland. They don't know anything about that, but through first hand trade union and campaigning experience are aware of the class character of politics, and understand well the interests the two main parties represents. Here, the authors have entirely discarded experiential learning and understanding and chose to arbitrarily privilege one form of knowledge over another - which just so happens to be entirely of the disembodied sort that characterises political science. Think about it like this, who is the most knowledgeable about politics. The working class Tory voter who swallows the race-baiting editorials of the paper they read, but can reel off the last eight Prime Ministers from memory, or the working class Labour voter who sees through divide-and-rule nonsense and votes according to their interests as a wage earner?

This survey is okay if you want to test political trivia, but that is all the authors accomplish. That people who see politics in rarefied terms should vote Tory is hardly surprising, but to identify this with "greater" political knowledge is absurd and says more about the authors than anything else. A study with such unjustifiable and obvious methodological problems should not be making the grand claims attaching to it. Were the research submitted to a peer reviewed journal it would get a very rough ride indeed, if not an outright rejection.


Speedy said...

Quick observation on numbers. Yes, there may be more left graduates than right-wing ones, but it is not an absolute difference - I'm sure there are lots of right-wing scientists and MBAs, for eg.

Just look at print readership - 1 million strong readers of right-wing Times and Telegraph, plus 2 million (?) for Mail (of which there is no Left equivalent). These choices matter because people are spending their money on their preference.

Compare this to 350,000 for Guardian and 1 million for Mirror.

No contest. Also many people of the older generation didn't get degrees but are bright enough to have done so, and are reading the Torygraph or Times.

Political knowlege-wise, I would say the Times and Guardian are mirror images of each other, both offering comprehensive coverage but from a different slant. The Telegraph is terrible, but has some good commentators.

I read almost as much idiocy (today - why wool is as bad as fur) in the Guardian as I might in the Times, so I think people fool themselves if they think they are always better informed (Evans-Pritchard in the Tele knocks spots off Larry Elliot in the Guardian on economics, and both were Brexiters, though at least AEP predicted the ensuing nightmare).

So although many of the most intelligent people may be of the left, the majority of the rather intelligent people (and lets remember this is the people who generate the money that pays for the majority left-wing public sector) are of the right, and therein you have the socialist conundrum in a nutshell.

Dialectician1 said...

Indeed, and that pub quiz mentality stretches deep into our education system, which increasingly foregrounds content (factual knowledge) over conceptualisation (application/understanding). The problem with the latter category is that it is hard to measure and what we can't measure we find hard to value. Thus, despite the I.Q. test being notoriously pitted with problems of identifying 'value free' questions and whether there is a link between 'abstract reasoning' and the practice of being an intelligent human being, it continues to be used by academics and corporations to filter people (even thought most of us have an standard measured intelligence). Danny Dorling's work convincingly shows how, in more stratified societies, there is a constant requirement to justify inequality (some people get less than others because they're 'thick'). Carrying out tests to prove the the rich (and their children) are innately entitled to their wealth and status is an important part of that process. As the survey results above show, Labour voters really are a bit thick!

Metatone said...

Obvious extra point - let's ask a question about austerity, or climate change, where the prevailing consensus on the right is just wrong...

Phil said...

What nonsense. I suppose it's meant to distinguish between knowledge and 'reckons', in the way of that survey of great popular misconceptions a few years ago. But even if it did that reliably, it wouldn't test for big-picture political awareness and engagement at all. Incidentally, when I was doing postgrad teacher training and we touched on making lectures more interactive, I was strongly discouraged from asking students right/wrong questions at all - let alone pedantic gotcha's like most of these. It's like saying that a student's got no understanding of Harold Wilson's political trajectory because they can't spell 'Falkender'.

Dialectician1 said...

What nonsense? Is it nonsense that our state education system has been following a national curriculum that 'chunks up' knowledge so that it is examinable? Under pressure of SATs and external examinations, critical thinking and holistic understanding is made difficult to implement in most state schools. Although not quite as bad as Dicken's Gradgrind, what we value is 'facts', or as I said above 'what is measurable'. Teachers are under pressure to teach to the test. You ought to read Michael Rosen's stuff or follow the ongoing campaigning against political interference in our education system (from Baker through to Gove and beyond). The object of political interference since Callaghan's famous 'secret garden' speech in 1979 is to link what is taught to economic growth, and reduce education to a filtering machine. Political education is, therefore, left on the margins and is mostly taught in a cross curriculum way.

Making teaching more 'interactive' does not solve the problem of a general political illiteracy that most young people have when they leave school.

PS. Many independent schools teach rhetoric, (although rarely described as this). How to deconstruct an argument; how to persuade etc.

John Rogan said...

"The UK is legally required to leave the European Union by March 2019" -

I wonder what the "correct" answer to this was as I'm not aware there is legal consensus on this. Namely, unless there was a definitive judgement at the European Court of Justice, I'm not sure. For example, if the UK decided to unilaterally withdraw Article 50, would this be possible?

At the moment, it's better to say that the UK is politically "required to leave the European Union" as both main Parties back that position.

Anomalous Cowshed said...

Ummm, those questions look like sanity checks to me. That is, assuming that a higher proportion of Conservative voters got more of those questions correct, which seems to be the result they got, then Conservative voters had a tendency to understand the system within which they themselves as voters, and politicians, operate, while Labour voters apparently did not.

If this is true, then while the 61% of those who used the internet "a great deal" voted Labour, then it suggests that the information they found was in some way fundamentally incorrect, or irrelevant to the environment in which a Labour government would have to operate.

This would suggest that those Labour voters are probably likely to report higher levels of disapproval or disappointment in any subsequent Labour government. This is probably not a good thing for the Labour party.

A second thing about intelligence and edumacation;

"The problems with these studies is how one defines left and right as well as intelligence itself. Remember, IQ only measures one's ability to do IQ tests after all. Nevertheless, one doesn't have to look too far to note the relationship between greater levels of formal education and left votes."

A higher level of formal education is not necessarily a sign of higher intelligence (whatever that might be). It is a sign of specialisation, of (hopefully) deeper knowledge and understanding in a specifically bounded domain. The number of subjects studied from GCSE to degree level narrows at each stage (basically, it halves), so depth increases as breadth decreases.

It is possible that a graduate, once equipped with an expensive hammer, finds that everything looks like a nail.

Anonymous said...

Even as a trivia test, it's not clear to me what the answer to question 5 actually is. I'm sure those conducting the survey would give the answer as true, but whether the UK is "legally required" to leave the EU hinges on the legal question of whether it is possible for the UK to unilaterally withdraw a notification of its intention to leave given under the terms of Article 50 TEU. That question has not been resolved, so there is no definitive answer to question 5.

Graham G said...

This so called survey is from Essex only, and the survey company is owned by Tory MP Nadhim Zahawi, the MP for Stratford upon Avon. Whom I have a very low opinion of.

Joe Perry said...

What worries me is the absence of error bars...