By Julianna Parker

Transcript Staff Writer

Jennifer Hochschild gave the first of a series of lectures Tuesday about how citizens’ knowledge of facts affects the American political system.

She focused primarily on explaining the frame work of her series, giving a context of information and misinformation by the American public regarding social status and politics.

The Harvard political science professor came to Norman as part of the Julian J. Rothbaum Distinguished Lecture Series, organized by the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma.

She will speak again 3:30 p.m. today and Thursday in the Mary Eddy and Fred Jones Auditorium at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, 555 Elm Ave. The lectures are free and open to the public.

Hochschild’s lecture series is called “Facts, Politics and Democracy.” She answered the question Tuesday “What do citizens know (or think they know)?” Today, she’ll examine “How do facts matter in politics?” and she’ll answer “Why should facts shape democratic decisions?” Thursday.

One of the main questions she said she hopes to answer is whether facts, and an accurate understanding of them, can truly change minds and policies.

She quoted a character in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion,” saying, “Facts shall speak.” Hochschild, who said she believed Austen to be one of the greatest novelists of all time, said she continues to lecture and teach because on some level she believes facts will speak and change things.

The flip-side of that belief, she said, can be summed up in a quote from possibly the second-greatest novelist of all time, Mark Twain: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.”

In her lecture Tuesday, she explained she would be looking at her subject through three categories of factual knowledge.

The first is when people know incorrect facts. She called this the “Jewish foreboding complex,” after a survey of Jews in San Francisco that showed most believed Jews could not be elected to political office, despite the fact that nearly all San Francisco’s representatives were Jewish.

Hochschild said she will discuss today how these incorrect beliefs influence politics.

One possibly dangerous example, she said, is that a survey found that white Americans believed there was a disproportionately higher black population in America than is true, that blacks make up a much larger majority of the poor than is true, and that the average black person’s income was at least as good as or better than the average white person’s, which also is not true.

“More importantly for political reasons, it’s not a very sympathetic view,” she said.

The second category of knowledge she called “Homer gets a tax cut,” when people know correct political facts but ignore them.

To illustrate this, she looked at a survey that asked people if they thought the estate tax should be repealed. It showed that poor people, who believed the government should provide more services, believed the disparity between rich and poor is growing and that is a bad thing — generally, those who should support the tax — thought the tax should remain.

This type, too, has potentially influential political consequences, she said.

She broke down this type of knowledge even further by saying the reasons for this were either “willful ignorance” or “weakness of will.”

In an example of willful ignorance, most people tend to underestimate the consequences of war, but that could be a positive or negative thing depending on whether you believe war is good, she said.

As an example of weakness of will, she cited a survey that showed nearly 3/4 of those surveyed believed global warming was a threat to the human race, but only a minority said they would elect politicians or promote policies to remedy the damages.

“There’s a big lacuna between what facts people know and what facts people use when making a political judgment,” Hochschild said.

The third type of knowledge was when people know and use correct political facts. She called this “Surgeon General’s Warning,” based on the increase of public knowledge that smoking is unhealthy and the corresponding decrease in cigarette use over the past 40 years.

Another example Hochschild looked at in her lecture was how Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction changed some citizens’ support of the war.

“A nontrivial number of Americans did absorb new information,” she said, and as a result they changed their minds.

The conclusion Hochschild drew from examining these three types of knowledge was that Americans don’t know as much politically as the academic elite think they should know.

However, Americans do sometimes learn new information that changes their minds and this belief is what keeps people like Hochschild going, she said.

“It does happen, but it doesn’t happen very often,” she said of this change.

The lecture today will use the information discussed Tuesday and evaluate how the facts Americans know affect political policy.

Thursday, Hochschild said she would take a philosophical approach and look at how knowledge should affect politics and policy.

Hochschild said she published an article on that topic about 10 years ago, but hadn’t gone back to it until she was given the time through this program.

Hochschild is the author of seven books and more than 60 journal articles, book chapters and monographs. She was the founding editor of Perspectives on Politics, for which she won the 2006 Heinz Eulau award and the praise of her professional colleagues at the American Political Science Association, of which she has served as vice president.

Hochschild, who earned her doctorate from Yale University, taught for almost 20 years at Princeton University. She was honored in May by Harvard College for her distinguished contributions to undergraduate teaching and mentoring.

Later Tuesday, she gave remarks and took questions at a dinner in the Sandy Bell Gallery of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. She said she was excited to come to Oklahoma and test out some of her theories on live audiences.

She said the need to have an enlightened citizenry was paramount to civic engagement. In response to a question about technology controlling information sharing, she said she didn’t think today’s devices are any more influential than the Penny Press was years ago.

Julianna Parker


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