Ignorance Can Be Useful. The Iowa Caucus Is a Case in Point

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President Donald Trump walks to the podium before speaking at a campaign rally inside of the Knapp Center arena at Drake University on January 30, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
President Donald Trump walks to the podium before speaking at a campaign rally inside of the Knapp Center arena at Drake University on January 30, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.Credit: AFP

DES MOINES – On the margins of the mass rally that U.S. President Donald Trump held last week in Iowa’s capital, Des Moines, random conversations with supporters of the president frequently created an impression of considerable expertise about Israeli politics. Some self-described “seekers,” who move from church to church, for example, expressed genuine concern about Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future; a Catholic activist said she was worried about the “radical agenda” of the anti-religious left; and a man wearing overalls in the colors of the American flag took an interest in U.S. financial aid to Israel: “It doesn’t make sense that America carries all the weight.”

That’s certainly impressive. In the heart of the American Midwest, one can’t help but be amazed that someone from an isolated town, known mainly for its location by the side of the highway, even knows how to pronounce the word “Netanyahu.” Of course, this wasn’t a scientific study, but the impression was reinforced when I compared them with the many Democratic voters I met while traveling for nine days in Iowa, who did not display similar knowledge.

Israel and Netanyahu aren’t really significant issues in the 2020 election campaign in the United States, even among Trump supporters. But conversations about Israel – which came up spontaneously when I told people I was from an Israeli newspaper – provided a sort of test case for the electorate’s decision-making: why they vote the way they do and what is important to them, based on what sort of knowledge. It appeared as though people possessing only the most basic information about Israel tended to speak in an authoritative tone of voice, laden with certainty, and suggested categorical solutions for the problems of the Middle East. In contrast, those who admitted that they didn’t know anything displayed curiosity, asked questions and were willing to take in new information and form an opinion accordingly.

The public discourse in the United States is focused for the most part on domestic issues, such as health-care reform, rehabilitation of the education system and, of course, whether or not to oust Trump. It’s easy to mock those who attended the Des Moines rally, but the true gap – the one that is making voters contemplate carefully how they will cast their ballot and not favor a particular candidate automatically – seems to lie not between the Trump advocates and the Democrats. It lies between those who are certain about whom they will vote for and those who are not sure, among whom are quite a few liberals. My impression is that this is a phenomenon that crosses party lines. At present, many Republicans “know” their candidate is the best; after all, they are reelecting a sitting president and don’t have to really think about it. But the Democrats are confronting a dilemma because they have primaries.

In 2010, two experts on cognitive psychology, Lisa K. Son and Nate Kornell, published an article titled “The Virtues of Ignorance.” Exaggerated self-confidence is a familiar human trait, but the scientists presented interesting cases in which knowledge turned out to be a hidden weakness. “Although ignorance and uncertainty are usually unwelcome feelings,” they wrote, “they have unintuitive advantages for both human and non-human animals… expertise and knowledge can come with illusions (and delusions) of knowing… withholding information can counteract these perils: providing people with less information enables them to judge more precisely what they know and do not know.... Ignorance can be a virtue, as long as it is recognized and rectified.”

This was well illustrated by one of the experiments they conducted. Focusing on people recognized for their knowledge in one or another field, the researchers set out to examine the experts’ ability to acknowledge what they do not know. In the experiment, historians and mathematicians were given a questionnaire in which supposedly familiar names appeared next to one of three different professions: mathematician, historian or athlete. The subjects were asked to say whether a given name belonged to the stated category. They could choose one of three responses: “yes,” “no” or “don’t know.” But a third of the names were fictitious and another third had been paired with wrong category.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders waiting to hear caucus results on Monday in Des Moines. Credit: Kerem Yucel / AFP

With regard to incorrect names in the respondents’ own fields, there was a significant falloff in the “don’t know” response, and a rise in the number of definite “yes” responses. In other words, the more confident the experts felt about their own knowledge, the less uncertainty they felt. Mathematicians wrote “yes” alongside the names of 19 “invented” mathematicians, but only responded “yes” seven times when the made-up names were attributed to experts in another field, history. The historians, for their part, said yes eight times about made-up historians, but only four times about fictional mathematicians.

The moral is not that it’s best to know nothing, but that there is a hidden risk inherent in the certainty that is felt when a person is sure about his or her knowledge. This insight is not earth-shattering news. Socrates figured it out about 2,400 years ago. The Greek philosopher maintained that he was the wisest of humans because, while all other people seem to know what they know, he knows what he doesn’t know. Thomas Jefferson honed the concept when he said: “He who knows most, knows best how little he knows.”

None of this, of course, contradicts the dictum attributed to Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is power” – it only adds to it a healthy dose of skepticism. In Iowa, at least, the Democratic primary would seem to have provided fertile ground for this. The polls undoubtedly contributed to this, when they showed a close race among four candidates. Indeed, as of Thursday, Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, had only a very slight edge over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

The archaic system of caucuses, such as that in Iowa, contributes above all to a feeling of uncertainty and seemed to lead voters in the state to think more deeply about whom to vote for. This small state in the heart of America, with a population of three million, does not have polling booths or secret ballots for its caucuses. Instead, voters show up at one of almost 1,700 election centers – in gyms, classrooms or even restaurants. In the company of their neighbors, the voters convene to choose a candidate. The even more important twist is the existence of a second round of voting: Candidates who did not get 15-percent support in the first round are simply not counted. But in contrast to Israel, their votes don’t get thrown out: Those who voted for a candidate who lost get a second opportunity to realign in favor of a viable candidate.

To an outside observer, it’s a bizarre system. It’s also bizarre to most Americans. Indeed, all the candidates who flooded Iowa, mostly because it’s the first to hold a primary, attracted a singular audience of voters. In this state, a rally is not just a show of support, it’s a genuine platform for persuasion. Of course, there were ardent supporters at the gatherings I attended, but also a large number of undecided folks. All of them came to listen and to ask questions, and to give a chance to those who had taken the trouble to come to their backyard. The knowledge that candidates might not make it to the second round compels the voters to form a backup plan.

“Pete is my candidate, for sure,” Brian, who’s 64, from the small town of Allerton, told me enthusiastically, before the voting. Still, I met Brian at a rally in support of Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Indianola, a college town with a population of 16,000. Even though he had no wish to vote for Warren, Brian felt compelled to delve into her platform and wanted to hear how she fielded questions. “I’m going to listen to what she has to say. [Joe] Biden, too. In fact, I’m going to check out [Michael] Bloomberg,” he said, even though Bloomberg wasn’t on the ballot and didn’t campaign in Iowa.

I met Linda Rapattoni and Aurello Rojas, a couple from Hawthorne, California, last week at a Sanders rally. They were “political tourists,” who had come all the way from southern California to see the candidates in person. I ran into them again on Monday morning, when the voting began. They said they’d been to meetings with all the candidates other than Biden. They’d been impressed not only by those running for election, but also by the voters. “Out there in California, they can’t name their own congressperson,” Rojas said.

Every four years the candidates flock to Iowa, where a victory usually generates powerful momentum for the rest of the campaign. But precisely there, between the snow-covered corn fields, the system induced voters to familiarize themselves with unknown candidates, too, who in most other states would stand no chance. In Iowa, Jimmy Carter, in 1976, and Barack Obama, in 2008, traveled from county to county to persuade the unpersuaded. Overnight they became realistic candidates.

“Take California,” Rojas said. “People are in their own silos. You like Trump, the other person hates Trump. There is no way you’re going to convince somebody who likes Trump to get off of Trump.” And the fact is that over the past 30 years, in the general election, the Iowans voted for George H.W. Bush, twice for Bill Clinton, twice for George W. Bush, twice for Barack Obama and once for Trump.

“That’s incredible schizophrenia,” Rojas commented. “Or maybe it’s openness to other ideas.”

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