by UnHerd
Tuesday, 1
June 2021
Spotted
15:47

Proof at last: Politicos don’t know what they’re talking about

New evidence for what may have seemed obvious for some time
by UnHerd
Whose party is it anyway? Credit: Getty

Spend any time on Twitter and you may come to suspect that some of the most politically engaged individuals have the least idea what they’re talking about. 

Listen to the Question Time audience or a radio show phone-in and you may reach a similar conclusion. 

Well, now there’s proof. A new paper in a forthcoming issue of Electoral Studies presents hard evidence that a high level of attention to politics is no guarantee of accuracy. The authors, Roosmarijn de Geus and Jane Green of Nuffield College, Oxford explore the complicated relationship between knowledge and attention by asking people whether nor not they’ve heard about various new political parties, like the Brexit Party.

The ingenious bit is that some of the parties are fictitious. For instance, as well as the Brexit Party, respondents were asked about an entirely made-up organisation called the Remain Party. Yet, despite its non-existence, 37% of respondents claimed to have heard about it.

This compares to 19% recognition for the Women’s Equality Party, which does in fact exist. 

But isn’t there a straightforward explanation for these mistakes, which is that a lot of people have more than politics to bother about — and thus aren’t paying much attention? They’ll have heard others drone on about Remain — so, perhaps, when asked about a Remain Party, they simply guess that one must exist. 

But here’s the twist: increased attention to politics doesn’t necessarily improve the accuracy of people’s answers. Indeed, among the ‘low knowledge’ group of respondents, those who pay the most attention to politics are more likely to say that they’ve heard of a fictitious party than those who pay less attention. It would seem that a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing. 

It could be especially dangerous for pollsters if their surveys are targeting people with high levels of political attention on the assumption that they know more about politics. This can’t be assumed at all. 

Aside from accuracy, there’s also the question as to whether the news agenda leaves a lasting impression on those who pay the most attention to it. 

For instance, a recent YouGov survey found that the Downing Street refurbishment saga only had an effect on the voting intention on the high attention group. The rest of the population didn’t seem to care. As it turned out, the sudden narrowing of opinion polls around this time didn’t last for long.

Could it be that these short-term shifts in public opinion are as frothy as the news agenda that drives them?

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Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
11 months ago

Respondents were asked about an entirely made-up organisation called the Remain Party. Yet, despite its non-existence, 37% of respondents claimed to have heard about it.

…the Remain Party does exist though. It was called Change UK (or the independent party, or Anna Soubry’s travelling circus, or whatever was considered the most attention-getting name of the week).

Mike Boosh
Mike Boosh
11 months ago

That takes me back… Anna Soubry… Wonder whatever happened to that sour faced old whiner?

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
11 months ago

No, what drives shifts in political support is perception.
Someone who pays a lot of attention to politics is as vulnerable to perceptual shift as someone who only tunes in once every four or five years.

The key example for me – although I know some do not accord it the weight I do – was the night of the Sheffield rally when Kinnock
got carried away. I watched, and knew instantly that he had blown it. Millions of other people watched it and made up their minds that this man should not be Prime Minister.

Starmer did pretty much the same thing when he took the knee.
He doesn’t appear to know it, but there was no way back from that. His equivocation over just about everything merely underscores an already cemented perception that this man lacks the necessary integrity and conviction to lead the country.

When the next election comes, he will lose it. it is guaranteed unless Johnson does something so terrible the sh)t finally sticks to him. And even then it will be close run, because people don’t want Starmer in charge.

I hear you cry: but Johnson does not have integrity or conviction.

You are right. But he has never pretended to have it. Instead he has cemented the perception that he is clever, amiable and in touch with the common man.

It is all perception. it isn’t policy detail, unless a policy disaster rears its head (dementia tax). In fact, the dementia tax cemented a perception about May that was less than favourable: she was doing it because Corbyn was so awful she still couldn’t lose even if she was going to disinherit the children of middle class Tory voters. It looked (and was) cynical.

Regardless of what triggers it, it is broad perception that determines whether someone is electable. Apparently inconsequential occurrences can trigger a 180 degree perceptual switch from ‘yes’ to ‘no’ (or, if more rarely, vice versa) while at the same time mountains and mountains of the most damning evidence can fail to make a dent in someone’s popularity.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kremlington Swan
Tom Lewis
Tom Lewis
11 months ago

…..and then there is Gordon Brown ! What a bigot.

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
11 months ago
Reply to  Tom Lewis

Yes, I wonder if that was it. It may have been. “Just some bigoted woman”. And then he went back in person to apologise. He managed to look elitist, dismissive, arrogant and self-serving all in one fell swoop.
Odd, ain’t it. If he had been Tory he would probably have picked up a few of the softer, Tory-lite votes, but for a Labour leader to be so contemptuous of a genuine working class grievance was unforgivable, and was duly not forgiven.
That was 2010. Labour have learned nothing since, but instead have steadily made themselves less and less electable.

Last edited 11 months ago by Kremlington Swan
Simon Neale
Simon Neale
11 months ago

For instance, a recent YouGov survey found that the Downing Street refurbishment saga only had an effect on the voting intention on the high attention group.

This is why polls focusing on voting intention seem to be a complete waste of time. Who in their right mind would change their voting intention because of something like that? Clearly, the Tory-bashers would use it as an excuse to turn up the volume, but it would not affect who they vote for. And are there significant numbers of Conservative voters who would actually abandon Boris over wallpaper?

Andrew D
Andrew D
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

‘My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go’ (O. Wilde, attrib.)

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
11 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Not really, no. For people like them (who are people like me) the wallpaper thing is so trivial it barely merits acknowledgement. Not when there is so much else that is worthy of consideration.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
11 months ago

The London political scene SPAD’s or something are very obsessed about their own little world

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
11 months ago

I would say the authors of this study likely know so little of real world life and politics, just know their agenda, academic, echo-chamber driven politics, that their study is mere shambles. Like if they were to try to check if Physics post-graduates understood physics by thinking up some equally unhelpful methodology, how it would more play to their own lack than to the ones they study.

Catching people out by tests designed to catch them out, and then using that to say they do not understand real world issues, is not very helpful. Just shows they are good at fooling people. Those people who did not know a party actually called Remain does not exist may still understand the issues well – even intuitively, by knowing people on each side and from life.

JohnW
JohnW
11 months ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Indeed. The fact that there isn’t a party with the NAME Remain Party is hardly evidence of anything? Like asking physics grads if they have heard of Newton’s Theory of Gravity, then going ha! ha! It isn’t called that!

Last edited 11 months ago by JohnW
Albireo Double
Albireo Double
11 months ago

“Could it be that these short-term shifts in public opinion are as frothy as the news agenda that drives them?”
Dear God, surely not
That would mean that all the punditry, opinions, and comments were a complete waste of time!

Saul D
Saul D
11 months ago

A common issue with online polls is a small but persistent set of fake answers – whether for personal entertainment, or for financial gain. For instance, I saw one supposedly credible poll that had something like 19% of under 30s in the US agreeing, to some extent, with the statement that the world was flat.
Better pollsters control for this with check and trap questions to catch false responses. So, since I can’t get to the paper (paywall) to read how they did it, I’d want to know what controls they put in to screen for those ‘having an laugh’.

David Jones
David Jones
11 months ago

Indeed, among the ‘low knowledge’ group of respondents, those who pay the most attention to politics are more likely to say that they’ve heard of a fictitious party than those who pay less attention.

So this still only applies to “low knowledge” voters. This finding does not seem to support the headline or the main thrust of the article. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, indeed.