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[Ilya Somin] Public ignorance, brown cows, and the origins of chocolate milk [updated with some additional information]

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A brown cow.

A new survey indicating that 7 percent of Americans believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows has gotten a lot of media attention, including from NBC, Huffington Post, Food & Wine, and the Washington Post’s Wonkblog. As an example of public ignorance, this is not a particularly worrisome figure. As Caitlin Dewey notes in her Wonkblog article about the survey, “the most surprising thing about this figure may actually be that it isn’t higher.”

Seven percent is actually a pretty low number, and it’s not clear that it really matters whether people know where chocolate milk comes from or not. Some of the seven percent is likely caused by respondents being confused about the survey rather than genuinely ignorant (though some also probably got the correct answer by guessing). Even well-designed surveys have measurement errors that affect a small percentage of respondents.

Sadly, there are numerous far worse examples of public ignorance out there, including many about far more consequential issues. The 7 percent figure pales in comparison with the 25 percent who don’t know the earth orbits the sun, the 66 percent who can’t name the three branches of government, and – my personal favorite – the 80 percent who support mandatory labeling of food containing DNA. I cover these examples and many others like them in my book on political ignorance .

Most of this ignorance is not the result of stupidity or lack of information. It is in fact largely rational behavior. We all have limited time, energy, and attention, and so can learn only a small fraction of all the information out there. It makes sense for us to focus on that which is likely to be useful or interesting. For many people, large swathes of basic political and scientific facts don’t qualify.

In and of itself, ignorance is not a problem. It is often rational and is an unavoidable part of the human condition. But ignorance becomes dangerous when individually rational ignorance leads to harmful collective outcomes. Sadly, that is often the case with political ignorance, and ignorance about scientific issues relevant to government policy. From the standpoint of the individual voter, it makes sense to devote little effort to acquiring information about government and public policy, because the chance that her vote will make a difference is infinitesimally small. But such behavior can lead to terrible outcomes when an entire electorate is ignorant in this way.

We shouldn’t worry much about the fact that a small minority of Americans think chocolate milk comes from brown cows. But we should take the problem of widespread political ignorance far more seriously.

UPDATE: The photo originally posted with this article actually depicts a brown bull, rather than a cow. I was misled by the lack of horns. But it turns out not all bulls have horns. I have now replaced it with a picture of an actual brown cow.

I don’t claim to have much knowledge of cows or bulls or much skill in telling them apart, and the photo snafu certainly proves that I am no expert on those subjects! Regardless, the main point of the post stands. Public ignorance about the origins of chocolate milk is not a big deal. But some other kinds of ignorance are.

UPDATE #2: It may be worth noting that 48 percent of respondents to the survey admitted they simply don’t know where chocolate milk comes from, a much larger figure than the 7 percent who said it comes from brown cows. Still, I think there is little cause for concern about this result, because it’s not clear why it matters whether people know how chocolate milk is produced. Most people don’t know much about the production process for the vast majority of the products they consume. It’s not a significant problem unless it leads them to support harmful or counterproductive public policies or ignore some significant safety risk.

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jkevmoses
11 days ago
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It is beyond funny someone calling out ignorance in others has a gaffe like not knowing what sex the bovine in the picture at the top of the article represents. I got a good laugh!
McKinney, Texas
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Outsourcing Your Online Presence

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Joe Cieplinski:

Look, I get that I’m the nut who doesn’t want to use Facebook. I’m not even saying don’t post your stuff to Facebook. But if Facebook is the only place you are posting something, know that you are shutting out people like me for no good reason. Go ahead and post to Facebook, but post it somewhere else, too. Especially if you’re running a business.

The number of restaurants, bars, and other local establishments that, thanks to crappy web sites they can’t update, post their daily specials, hours, and important announcements only via Facebook is growing. That’s maddening. Want to know if we’re open this holiday weekend? Go to Facebook.

Go to hell.

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jkevmoses
25 days ago
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Similar to the quote of a criminal that when asked "Why do you rob banks? answered with "Because that's where the money is". Facebook is used because that's where the people are. It may or may not be a good service but that is where a lot of people are so it makes sense for businesses to post information on Facebook. They are obviously getting enough business to not care about if Facebook is a great user experience. It's must be a good business experience or they would do something different.
McKinney, Texas
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1 public comment
onepointzero
25 days ago
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It would be less of an issue if Facebook didn't harass non logged-in users to login/signup via repetitive, content-covering, in-your-face modals when looking at public business pages. This agressive attitude has the opposite effect on me. It makes me not want to create an account even more.
Brussels, Belgium

NewsBlur now supports the new JSON Feed spec

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Introduced and announced only last week by open web pioneers Manton Reece and Brent Simmons, JSON Feed is a new RSS-like spec that lets websites publish their stories in a much easier and human readable format.

From the JSON Feed spec authors:

We — Manton Reece and Brent Simmons — have noticed that JSON has become the developers’ choice for APIs, and that developers will often go out of their way to avoid XML. JSON is simpler to read and write, and it’s less prone to bugs.

Starting today, NewsBlur now officially supports the new JSON Feed spec. And there’s nothing extra you have to do. This means if a website syndicates their stories with the easy-to-write and easy-to-read JSON format, you can read it on NewsBlur. It should make no difference to you, since you’re reading the end product. But to website developers everywhere, supporting JSON Feeds is so much easier than supporting XML-based RSS/Atom.

Daring Fireball, as pictured above, supports the new JSON Feed. To you, the reader, it should look no different than any other RSS feed. But to the developer, publishing this as a JSON Feed instead of XML is an order of magnitude easier and quicker.

This spec is a terrific effort by open web advocates to make it easier to keep the web open and free by lowering the cost to writing and publishing.

Try it for yourself, just subscribe to this feed: https://daringfireball.net/feeds/json. Even viewing it in a web browser is more pleasant than its XML counterpart.

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jkevmoses
34 days ago
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This is why I pay money and support this feed reader. Great job! Thanks.
McKinney, Texas
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5 public comments
seriousben
34 days ago
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The JSON feed spec looks promising. Looking forward to implement it.
Canada
ameel
35 days ago
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Yay!
Melbourne, Australia
chrisrosa
35 days ago
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good stuff from @newsblur #jsonfeed #rss
San Francisco, CA
wmorrell
35 days ago
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The commit to add support is so short; 56 lines to map json to the NewsBlur field names, a few more spots sprinkled with checks for 'json' with 'rss', 'xml', etc
deezil
35 days ago
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@DigDoug Well here ya go!
Louisville, Kentucky

‘Win-Win’

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Josh Dawsey, reporting for Politico, “Behind Comey’s Firing: An Enraged Trump, Fuming About Russia”:

But the fallout seemed to take the White House by surprise. Trump made a round of calls around 5 p.m., asking for support from senators. White House officials believed it would be a “win-win” because Republicans and Democrats alike had had problems with the FBI director, one person briefed on the administration’s deliberations said.

Instead, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told him he was making a big mistake — and Trump seemed “taken aback,” according to a person familiar with the call.

By Tuesday evening, the president was watching the coverage of his decision and frustrated no one was on TV defending him, a White House official said. He wanted surrogates out there beating the drum.

So he fires Comey, calls Chuck Schumer expecting a pat on the back, Schumer instead tells him he’s making a big mistake, and Trump gets off the phone and mocks Schumer in a tweet. It’s almost comical that he expected this to be popular with Democrats.

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jkevmoses
48 days ago
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Comical? Because the Democrats flip flopped on Comey more than a short stack at Waffle House?
Fire him! No wait! Trump did fire him? We can't agree with Trump. It's now a grave threat to the constitution. You know when the Democrats start talking about the constitution they are in full demagogue mode!
McKinney, Texas
omurphyevans
48 days ago
How do you block people on Newsblur?
elmizzt
47 days ago
lmao^
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‘An Act of Monstrous Cruelty’

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Paul Weldman, writing for The Washington Post’s Plum Line:

Here at the Plum Line, we write a lot about the mechanics of politics — the processes of governing, the interplay of political forces, the back-and-forth between citizens and lawmakers, and so on. We do that because it’s interesting and because it winds up affecting all our lives. But there are moments when you have to set aside the mechanics and focus intently on the substance of what government does — or in this case, what government is trying to do.

I won’t mince words. The health-care bill that the House of Representatives passed this afternoon, in an incredibly narrow 217-to-213 vote, is not just wrong, or misguided, or problematic or foolish. It is an abomination. If there has been a piece of legislation in our lifetimes that boiled over with as much malice and indifference to human suffering, I can’t recall what it might have been. And every member of the House who voted for it must be held accountable.

Includes a solid point-by-point rundown of just what’s in this bill.

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jkevmoses
54 days ago
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McKinney, Texas
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2 public comments
skorgu
52 days ago
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GOP Delenda Est.
satadru
53 days ago
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Yup.
New York, NY

Trump Has Proven Himself Unfit

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Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman, reporting for The New York Times on the fallout from Donald Trump’s completely unsubstantiated claim that Barack Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped” during the election:

So for Mr. Trump’s allies inside the West Wing and beyond, the tweetstorm spawned the mother of all messaging migraines. Over the past few days, they have executed what amounts to a strategic political retreat — trying to publicly validate Mr. Trump’s suspicions without overtly endorsing a claim some of them believe might have been generated by Breitbart News and other far-right outlets.

“No, that’s above my pay grade,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary and a feisty Trump loyalist, when asked on Tuesday at an on-camera briefing if he had seen any evidence to back up Mr. Trump’s accusation. The reporters kept at him, but Mr. Spicer pointedly and repeatedly refused to offer personal assurances that the president’s statements were true.

“No comment,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said earlier in the day. Last week, Mr. Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia.

“I don’t know anything about it,” John F. Kelly, the homeland security secretary, said on CNN on Monday. Mr. Kelly shrugged and added that “if the president of the United States said that, he’s got his reasons to say it.”

How’s this for a reason: Donald Trump is not mentally fit. He is unhinged from reality. Many of us have said this ever since the election began, and were dismissed as being blinded by partisanship. Now that he’s in office, Trump is proving it by his own words and deeds.

Mr. Trump, advisers said, was in high spirits after he fired off the posts. But by midafternoon, after returning from golf, he appeared to realize he had gone too far, although he still believed Mr. Obama had wiretapped him, according to two people in Mr. Trump’s orbit.

He sounded defiant in conversations at Mar-a-Lago with his friend Christopher Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media, Mr. Ruddy said. In other conversations that afternoon, the president sounded uncertain of the procedure for obtaining a warrant for secret wiretaps on an American citizen.

Mr. Trump also canvassed some aides and associates about whether an investigator, even one outside the government, could substantiate his charge.

The president of the United States doesn’t know how warrants for wiretaps work, and considered hiring a private investigator to “prove” a fever dream charge against his predecessor. This man is unfit for the job, and not mentally well. Those surrounding him who refuse to acknowledge this and remove him from office are doing a grave disservice to the nation and the world, simply for the sake of protecting their own power.

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jkevmoses
110 days ago
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Not mentally well? I didn't know Gruber knew the president that well. How much time has he spent with the man in person? I think Trump is a loud mouth that is too impulsive in his tweets. That doesn't mean he is mentally unwell.
McKinney, Texas
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