Are We Really This Dumb? Yes, We’re Really This Dumb.

Despite my frequent ramblings on what some* might call trivial topics including animal-related magic tricks, obscure (possibly apocryphal) entertainment feuds, or professional wrestling, I’m actually quite attentive to politics and current events.  I’m simply selective.  This is mostly because such issues demand more deliberation in terms of writing style and attention to detail. In short, they’re more difficult.

Sometimes, though, a story comes across my virtual desk that warrants further discussion.  An article on this week triggered the requisite alarms.

The poll was a relatively simple one, consisting of a single question: “Just your best guess, what percent of Americans today would you say are gay or lesbian?”

The results were . . . I was going to say “surprising,” but “ridiculous” seems more appropriate.

Take a look at the chart below.  It may be a little confusing at first because you must remember that the answers are themselves percentages:

What do we see here?  The mean answer among all persons polled was 24.6%.  That means that, assuming this polling data is reliable, Americans on average believe that nearly one-fourth of the population is homosexual.

To put this in perspective, about 12.4% of the population is African-American according to the 2010 census.  That means that people responding to this Gallup poll believe there are approximately twice as many gay people in the United States are there are black people.

The most recent data and studies by demographers indicate that about 3.5% of the population identifies as either gay, lesbian, or bisexual, and a little over half of that (i.e. 1.8% of the 3.5%) are bisexual.  Put another way, the data suggests that less than two percent of the population is homosexual.  Even if we triple that number to account for under-reporting, we’re still left with a figure south of seven percent.

But the aspect of this story I find fascinating has nothing to do with the actual percentage of Americans who happen to be gay.  What fascinates me is the ability of Americans in all walks of life to hold such inaccurate views—views which inform their political decision-making.

I normally have mixed feelings when I hear critics attack the collective intelligence of this country.  On one hand, I like to be able to defend the United States as a country able to make collective decisions that are rational.  On the other hand, I remember how stupid the “average” person can actually be, then realize that about half the population is dumber than that.

Perhaps this misconception is limited to those who are less-educated.  Let’s take a look at the data in more detail:

While better-educated and higher-income folks have estimates that are closer to accurate, they’re still far off the mark.  Those with post-graduate degrees estimate on average that gays are more numerous than Hispanics in the United States.  Interestingly, social liberals’ average estimate is 27.3, while social conservatives estimate is much lower (but still way too high) at 20.7.  I would hypothesize that those on the left assume higher numbers would be politically expedient, but we may run into a chicken-and-egg problem trying to draw such a conclusion.**

Younger people also tend to overestimate by a greater margin, as those who are 18-to-29 allege nearly 30% of the population is gay.  Those over 65 give answers averaging at 22.4%. Another wide disparity exists between the sexes.  Men estimate “only” 19.4% of the population is homosexual, while women also approach 30%.

The notion that this proportion of the population is gay is, of course, absurd.  But here’s the important part: It’s absurd in a way that is troubling, because this particular absurdity flies in the face of both common knowledge and rhetoric.

In other words, whereas a topic like global warming might generate some divided opinion because there is a wide range of scholarship (and propaganda) taking positions that range from mild to extreme, the poll results here show popular support for an argument no one is making.  Not even activists.

That leads to an unsettling conclusion: Is it possible that, in a debate between position “A” and position “C,” rather than public opinion ending up at position “B,” it almost-inexplicably comes to rest somewhere around “M” or “P?”

Forget about the specific topic for a moment.  If this sort of strange result is possible, then what other misconceptions currently inform the American electorate’s decisions, whether voters are well-educated or not?

The only answer I can come up with to account for this odd phenomenon is media saturation distorting the views of Americans beyond all reality.  Here’s the thing, though: While there are certainly easy targets to which we can point in order to explain this misconception, the data from almost a decade ago shows a level of inaccuracy that’s only slightly less jaw-dropping than what Gallup found recently.

In short, this is nothing new.

Yet, ultimately, I will continue to choose to explain away these kinds of poll numbers.  Failing to do so would be to undermine the notion that voters in the United States are able to make informed decisions about social, economic, and international issues.

While that may be the case, I find my optimistic vision of our electorate to be much more appealing than the alternative.  I’ll stick with it for now.  Subject to change.

*Note that these people are wrong.
**Moreover, progressives tend to point to erroneous conclusions in national polls like these when the results serve to underscore their ubiquitous contention that conservatives and/or moderates are less-informed or unenlightened. However, I note that progressives have been uncustomarily quiet when it comes to the results here.
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2 Responses to Are We Really This Dumb? Yes, We’re Really This Dumb.

  1. Matt Gilliam says:

    I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that Americans don’t seem to understand percentages too well.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      That’s a great point. Rod also mentioned something along those lines today. You might be on the money: If the question had been phrased like, “Do you think at least one out of five Americans are homosexual?,” which 52% of Americans say is true in the poll above, I have to believe that something like 80%+ would have said “no.”

      Of course, maybe I’m just bad with percentages.

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