By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
File this in the category of, "I didn't realize just how uninformed some people are," a new survey makes the claim that seven percent of American adults believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. The data comes courtesy of the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy drawn from an online survey conducted in April of 1,000 American adults. On the one hand, that stands out as an awfully daft notion, and the seven percent an awfully high number (greater than the population of Pennsylvania). On the other hand, however, we don't really know how the question was asked. One Huffington Post reporter contacted the organization that conducted the survey and could not get a copy of the actual survey. "One problem," she writes, "it’s tough to gauge the survey’s reliability. It’s possible, for instance, that some people were simply trying to be funny while answering the question." The other problem is that the survey was released during "National Dairy Month" by a group advocating more education on America's dairies.
Whatever the veracity of this data point, it is a timely example of a larger phenomenon, and one that is relevant to public persuaders, including trial attorneys. That larger phenomenon is something called "rational ignorance." George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin, writing in The Volokh Conspiracy, looks at the chocolate cow example before citing worse examples, like the 25 percent not knowing the earth orbits the sun or 80 percent who want mandatory labeling for food that contains DNA. Somin, the author of a book on political ignorance, argues that ignorance isn't the same as stupidity. Sometimes, he writes, it is a rational behavior based on conservation of knowledge and attention. "We all have limited time, energy, and attention," he says, "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." And for many jurors in a courtroom, large swathes of what has been presented by one side or the other don't qualify as useful or interesting either. In this post, I'll share my thoughts on why courtroom advocates should see failed comprehension as not just an imperfection, but as part of a strategy by jurors, and focus on ways legal persuaders can make understanding more rational than ignorance.