This story is over 5 years old.

New Research Suggests Ignorance Is Less Than Evil in a Democracy

"The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all," said John F Kennedy. "The most violent element in society is ignorance," said Emma Goldman via the back of some yuppie's Subaru. And of course there's "Ignorance, the root and...
December 15, 2011, 7:00pm

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all,” said John F Kennedy. “The most violent element in society is ignorance,” said Emma Goldman via the back of some yuppie’s Subaru. And of course there’s “Ignorance, the root and stem of all evil,” from Plato. Thomas Jefferson was a bit more circumspect, saying, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” while ceding “ignorance is preferable to error.” This is the classic view: ignorance is democracy’s sickness. But a paper out this week in Science has some other ideas, gleaned from evolutionary processes, about the role — the neccessary role, perhaps — of ignorance in a democracy.

“The classic view is that uninformed or uncommitted individuals may allow extreme views to proliferate,” says the paper’s lead author Iain Couzin, a Princeton assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “We found that might not be the case.” Put very simply, ignorant participants help maintain majority rule by diluting the influence of powerful minority segments. In a democracy, minority rule is, in effect, error. And ignorance acts as a check on it.

Which is in a way a really ugly thing to say: disinterested and uninformed individuals keep minority populations in check. This is based on research in fish populations: uninformed members of a society tend to stick to the majority’s viewpoint when hunting out a certain piece of food. It allows concensus, keeps a population together and out of a fractious state. It’s survival.

“These experiments indicate there is an evolutionary function to being uninformed that perhaps is as active as being informed,” Couzin says. “Animals may be equally adaptable to simply going with the majority in certain circumstances because having that quick decision-making capability is beneficial for survival. We shouldn’t think of it as a bad thing, but look at advantages animals exhibit to being uninformed in natural circumstances.”

To translate this to humans, think of the primary elections happening now. Highly interested voters dominate primaries, while less interested voters heavily influence general elections. Hence, the tea party faction of the Republican Party becomes very powerful in the primaries and we wind up with the Newts and Rons and Michelles — while most everyone agrees that no one aside from Mitt Romney could ever reach a consensus in a general election, where the tea party will have the vital check of less interested, middle-of-the-road voters taking effect.

“This study gives us a new interpretation of group decision making that really flies in the face of previous opinions. We usually assume that a highly opinionated and forceful group is going to sway everyone,” Donald Saari, a professor of mathematics and economics at the University of California-Irvine, says. “What we have we here is something very different,” he says. “It doesn’t say whether or not the consensus it good, it just provides a way of understanding when and how the consensus changes.”

“Quite frankly, I think it’s because the highly opinionated are not in the center and the uninformed, to a large extent, are,” he adds.

Please to note, again, that consensus isn’t always a positive outcome in human systems, and perhaps a modern democratic system is less analogous to fish/natural systems than the researchers might like. Consensus wrought at the hands of the uninformed will always be negative in principle — democracy was founded in opposition to ignorance — but in terms of bare functionality, it would appear to be a key part of the basic democratic machine of reaching majority decisions, perhaps in spite of democratic principle.

Though, the following quote, from Couzin, doesn’t have much of a bumper-sticker ring to it: “. . .the counterweight to a powerful minority can come from the least expected population — the uninformed.”


Reach this writer at