Admittedly, I hold a rather dismal view of my fellow human beings. The average person just isn't all that bright or informed. Google "Jay Leno Jaywalking," "Lie Witness News," or "Florida Man," and you'll see what I mean.
That's why I don't understand why pollsters ask Americans what they think about science, economics, or foreign policy. If 1/3 of Americans don't know that all food contains genes, then why should I care what they think about GMO labeling? If 2/3 of Americans can't find North Korea on a map, why should I give any credence to their thoughts about whether to invade it? Conducting polls on complex topics like these is an exercise in futility.
Actually, most polling is an exercise in futility. Take a look at this poll from Pew:
There are at least three major problems with this poll.
First, the question was asked of all Americans. That doesn't really make any sense. It's not likely that a random white, Hispanic, or Asian American has any unique insight on the lives of black Americans. So the question probably should only have been asked of black Americans. (Again, that's no guarantee that the pollsters would get the "correct" answer, but the result would probably be slightly more insightful.)
Second, we don't have to ask people what they think is happening if we have data that tells us what actually is happening. For example, we can easily look up data on unemployment levels and household income and compare them over time and between racial/ethnic groups. This is far more useful than asking people to give a response that is based on their subjective personal experiences.
Third, the results of the poll are entirely absurd. From 1994 to about 2015, a majority of both Democrats and Republicans agreed that racism was NOT the reason why many black people cannot get ahead these days. Then, beginning in 2012, Democratic opinion changed, seemingly overnight. All of a sudden, Democrats believed that America had become a predominantly racist society.
That simply doesn't make sense. American culture has not changed that much in five years. The best explanation for this data is that Democrats consume news from sources that tell them that racism is a big problem, while Republicans consume news from sources that say the exact opposite. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle.
The only thing this poll shows us, then, is that Democrats and Republicans live in two separate realities, and they parrot whatever the talking heads say on TV. But we've known that for a long time. We didn't need Pew to remind us of that.
Alex Berezow, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow of Biomedical Science at the American Council on Science and Health, a national pro-science consumer advocacy group. He was the founding Editor of RealClearScience.