How political pundits are ignoring a third of people

A standard rule of expertise is that the more you know about the topic, the more you are aware of the limitations of your knowledge. Self-confident certainty makes for media-friendly punditry, for example, but also for inaccurate punditry.

In politics in particular, the error the self-confident frequently make on their road to inaccuracy is to over-estimate massively how much attention the public pays to politics and hence the public’s level of knowledge about events or even whether or not the public noticed the events at all. That is why, for example, effective political campaigns need to repeat messages until well past the point at which it may feel quite tedious to be having to say the same thing yet again.

Linked to that is another common error: because those who take part in party politics, write about or commentate on it are all somewhat removed from the average person most of the time in their knowledge of and interest in what’s going on, what seems like common knowledge and consensus amongst the can be very different from what lots of the public are thinking.

Which is one of the best arguments in favour of political opinion polling. Although the polls are not perfect (yet an awful lot more accurate than many of those over-confident experts think), they give in an insight into what the public actually thinks.

There’s a very striking example of just how different the perspective from the public can be with the ITV televised debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. The media, politics and social media punditry were all full of how awful either one or both of them were.

The public?

A third of people rated both Johnson and Corbyn’s performance positively.*

That’s right: a third of the public were impressed to some extent with both of the choices on offer.

That’s a world away from what you’d realise if you read, listened to or watched people, pundits and experts alike, reacting to the debate afterwards.

Which is why the truely expert use what they think or what people they’ve talked to think as a clue as to what might be going on rather than fooling themselves into therefore thinking they do really know what’s going on.


* 31% said that both Johnson and Corbyn performed either very well or fairly well. Thank you to Chris Curtis as YouGov for providing me with this additional cross-tab. ‘People’ here means people who watched the TV debate, weighted to be political representative.


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