October 16, 2008

You Always Know Less Than Your Source, Unless It's Balenciaga

The Pew Research Center asked 3612 adults three questions:

  1. Which party controls the U.S. House of Representative?
  2. Who is the Secretary of State?
  3. Who is the Prime Minister of Great Britain?
And they found something interesting that they did not report.


18% got all three questions right; only 30% knew Gordon Brown; 50% knew "Democrats" and 42% knew "Condoleeza Rice."

But the scores according to the audience of specific news sources:

pew research politics.gif

A few observations: The New Yorker readers are college educated and older, while The Daily Show people are still in college. perhaps affecting the results.  However only 31% of Hannity & Colmes viewers are college graduates, and they scored well.  So education itself is not the explanation.

Obviously, certain shows beat you over the head with the information.  That's all Rush and the Colbert Report talk about; but they don't much mention Great Britain.  So those scores of those audiences make sense.

What doesn't makes sense-- or, unfortunately, makes too much sense-- is why CNN viewers did worse than everyone.  If CNN is objective news, all the time, what happened?


Using Lexis-Nexis, I learned that in the past month, NPR has done 14 stories containing the search words "Gordon Brown."  Fox News did 10.  CNN had 24.  "Gordon Brown" appears zero times in The New Yorker.  Clearly, there are multiple factors that go into why certain people are more knowledgeable than others, but that still leaves open the question why those who are news watchers know less? 

Why were BBC watchers no more informed on Gordon Brown than Rush's listeners?  Remember, these are Americans who chose to watch the BBC.  I'm sure it's the same nuts who always tell me, "the BBC is so much better than our news."

It's high school-- they drilled the info into you, but it never "took."  What NPR and The New Yorker and even The Daily Show do is present the information in a context (e.g. here's why Bush sucks; here's a funny setup) that is usable by the audience ("hey, here's why Bush sucks;" "dude, this is hilarious, Gordon Brown...")  That's a good way of making it stick, and it helps explain why CNN's info doesn't stick, but  it means the message is now inseparable from the media.  And this is more dangerous, because you think you possess knowledge that you do not actually possess. 

Here's an example, arbitrarily using Rush Limbaugh.  Say he is talking about something you don't know much about, like the difference between the American and  British responses to the banking crisis.  He actually explains well very complex information and the possible  consequences.  You absolutely know more than you did before you heard him, even if you disagree with his conclusions.

But if someone asks you a question about this info, your response is most likely a version of what Rush said.  But worse, you don't realize this-- you think you are intelligently coming up with the info yourself.  You are not aware that you are reading from someone else's script.

This conceit of knowledge almost always results form learning from one source-- because it is never tested by a contrasting opinion.


Balenciaga is one of the oldest (i.e. from the 1960s) French fashion houses, but it has stopped producing haut couture because, simply, it wasn't profitable.  They've turned to ready-to-wear clothes, which are still elaborate, still have complex cuts and folds, seams, still are expensive, and still are French.  It may be "off the rack," but it's still Balenciaga, and anyone who knows anything will recognize it.

But there's a willful denial in play.  The trick is claiming that you have your own unique style, yet that style is available to anyone who chooses to buy it; you had nothing at all to do with it.  I suppose it's possible to claim you're different than those Givenchy sluts, but it is merely a fantasy-- or delusion-- that your style is entirely yours-- or even barely yours.

Even a woman who buys from a thrift store puts more original thought into her wardrobe, though of course even her style is bound by someone else's sketches so many years ago.

But try telling any woman in a designer dress that, and she'll punch you right in the nose.  "Yes, someone else had the idea for this dress, and created it; but it perfectly expresses who I am.  It is, for all intents and purposes, my ideas for clothes.  Of what consequence to me is it that 5000 other women feel the same way?  I still look amazing." 


So the fact that The New Yorker readers and Rush Limbaugh listeners possess a lot of information speaks to the contextualization, the usability of their presentation of that info, and how much it resonates with the particular inclinations of the audience.  Unfortunately, it's hard to know more info than your source for that info, and if you only have one source... you don't know very much.

But ignorance-- socratic ignorance, you-know-you-don't-know ignorance, is hardly the worst thing that can happen.  No, the worst thing, in a democracy, is to think the thoughts someone else gave you-- gave 5000 other people-- prete a porter, and believe they are your own.