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False Perceptions of Public Policy and Intellectual Conversion

One of the most talked about provisions of the tax reform currently being debated by Congress is the elimination of the estate tax. Currently, estates of over $5,000,000 are taxed when the estate-holder dies, unless the estate is left to a spouse or charity. Because of this high minimum threshold, the tax only affects the largest 0.2 percent of estates in the United States. The Tax Policy Center has estimated that this means that in 2017 approximately 5,460 people will have to pay the estate tax.

According to a recent HuffPost/YouGov survey, however, 30 percent of Americans believe that “most families” will have to pay the estate tax, and 32 percent believe that they themselves will have to pay the tax when they die, including 28 percent of individuals in households with incomes of less than $50,000.

The survey goes on to show that people’s inaccurate perceptions of who pays the tax influences their opinions on the tax itself. When respondents were simply asked whether the estate tax should be kept as is or eliminated, 41 percent responded that it should be eliminated and 27 percent that it should be kept in place. When respondents were told that the tax only affects households worth more than $5,000,000, however, only 29 percent responded that it should be eliminated and 46 percent believed it should be kept in place.

My point is not to debate the merits of the estate tax, but rather to examine how the American public’s gross misperceptions of the facts affect our ability to carry on meaningful debates about public policy. Perhaps the most well-known example of how public misperception of the facts skews Americans’ opinions on an important issue is that of foreign aid. The majority of Americans consistently believe that the United States spends too much on foreign aid and that much of that spending is wasted. But as a 2016 Kaiser Foundation survey shows, on average Americans believe that foreign aid takes up 31 percent of the annual budget of the U.S. Indeed, 15 percent of Americans believed that foreign aid makes up over half the budget. The reality is, however, that it makes up less than 1 percent of the total. Ironically, in a similar poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org for the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes in 2010, when asked what the appropriate level of spending on foreign aid would be, the median response of Americans was 10 percent of the budget, more than ten times the current spending level.

Again, in an Ipsos MORI survey taken in 2016, Americans reported that, on average, they believe that Muslims make up 17 percent of the nation’s population, when in fact they make up only about 1 percent of the population. Similar or even worse misperceptions were common in European nations. For example, in France participants estimated that Muslims make up 31 percent of the population, compared to 7.5 percent in actual fact, and in Great Britain the numbers were 15 percent and 4.8 percent, respectively. These misperceptions both fuel and are fueled by Islamophobia, and make it more difficult for countries to craft rational migration and counter-extremism policies. For example, in Poland, where the government has refused to admit the relatively small number of 6,200 refugees (Poland’s allotment of a total of 160,000 agreed to by the European Union in 2015), Catholics recently held a nationwide rosary, in which many participants gathered along the nation’s borders, in part intended to protect the nation from “Islamization.” Muslims make up less than 1 percent of Poland’s population.

What do these misperceptions of social reality, of which there are surely countless more, mean for Christian public theology or political theology? How can churches meaningfully engage in public life when the public, no doubt including church members themselves, so embarrassingly misunderstand the world in which we live?

As a first step, it is important to consider the causes for these misperceptions. The most obvious answer to the question of why people have false perceptions about public issues is that they are ignorant or uniformed. For example, it is widely recognized that many Americans lack basic knowledge of the U.S. government and geography. Although laziness and problems in the nation’s educational system may play a large part in explaining this, it is also true that people tend to remember things that are of practical use to them. This lack of knowledge may reflect the broader problem that many Americans feel disengaged from the political process.

That being said, many of these misperceptions seem to reflect more pervasive patterns of thinking rather than just a failure to remember random facts about the government or geography. One explanation, offered by the political scientist Emily Thorson, is that Americans are not good at math, and particularly percentages. Asking Americans about percentages, such as in the surveys on foreign aid and the Muslim population cited above, is difficult because respondents might not have a good sense of the overall size of the budget or total population, for example, or because they are not asked to assign proportions to other budget items or religious groups, respectively.

Although there is likely some truth to this, it is not completely persuasive. Some misperceptions do not involve percentages, or even math more generally. For example, after teaching and writing about the immigration issue for several years, I am convinced that many Americans have very little idea how the country’s immigration system actually works. The fact that so many people find persuasive the argument that undocumented immigrants should not be able to “cut in line,” or Donald Trump’s promise to build “a big beautiful wall with a big beautiful door,” illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the legal requirements and costs of immigrating to the U.S. that in turn skews how people interpret the immigration policy debate.

I use this example because it helps illustrate what I believe is the primary cause for the most harmful misperceptions of public life. We all carry with us narratives, “frames,” or mental images that we use to make sense of reality, some more helpful than others. These narratives then shape our perceptions on more specific questions when we are not sure of the facts. For example, it is likely that many Americans hold a mental image of the United States as a generous country that benevolently provides assistance to the rest of the world, and so this image shapes their perceptions of U.S. foreign aid. Likewise, many Americans think of themselves as bled dry by the government, and so they are more likely to guess that they will be affected by the estate tax even when this is far from true.

Especially in cases where people lack familiarity with an issue, these narratives or images are particularly influenced by the media. For example, polls repeatedly show that anti-immigrant views are strongest in parts of the United States where the fewest immigrants live or where people are least likely to report knowing immigrants. This suggests that for many people media reports about immigrants, which often tend to be negative, stand in for concrete experience with immigrants.

Unfortunately, precisely because Americans’ misperceptions about social and political issues are rooted in these narratives or mental images, they are particularly difficult to dislodge. Cognitive psychologists have recognized that when false knowledge is closely linked with a network of other beliefs (even if those beliefs are true), it is particularly hard to teach people correct knowledge. The most effective way to address this problem is to help people adjust their entire network of knowledge, the narratives and images they use to make sense of things, but of course this is a daunting task.

In his monumental work Method in Theology, the theologian and philosopher Bernard Lonergan, S.J. links what he calls intellectual conversion to religious or spiritual conversion. Recognizing and confronting our intellectual blind spots and biases is a moment of grace in which we grapple with the effects sin has on us, both personally and socially. Elsewhere I have written about the importance of fostering the intellectual virtues as part of moral development, particularly in the age of “fake news.”

Churches have an important role to play in this conversion process, not least precisely because the narratives and mental images that contribute to people’s misperceptions about public life are socially shared. Christian pastors must be conscious of how their preaching and teaching offers people alternative narratives that offer a more accurate perception of the world in which we live. Social ministry and public policy outreach will be ineffective if churches do not address the underlying narratives that contribute to people’s resistance to the church’s social teaching. At the same time, church’s must reflect on how they themselves have contributed to and benefited from the false narratives that lead to Americans’ misperceptions on so many issues.

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

One thought on “False Perceptions of Public Policy and Intellectual Conversion

  1. I wonder what it even means to say “on average Americans believe that foreign aid takes up 31 percent of the annual budget of the U.S.”
    Foreign aid’s percentage of the US budget is not something I imagine many of those polled have thought much about in their lives if ever and now somebody’s asking them to come up with a number so they guess. Whether this rises to the level of “belief,” I’m not so sure. It’s more likely something Americans on average would never have thought about at all had they not some pollster asked them.

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