Here’s some good news published in an unexpected source, the Wall Street Journal. [Americans Stumble on the Math of Big Issues, by Carl Bialik, Wall Street Journal, January 7, 2012]
In his regular feature titled The Numbers Guy, columnist Carl Bilalik offers support for his unsurprising premise that most Americans do not have a working understanding of the government around them. For example, according to a 2010 survey, Americans vastly overestimate spending on foreign aid by a factor of 25. And more than two-thirds of those who responded to a 2010 Zogby online poll underestimated the part of the federal budget that goes to Social Security or Medicare and Medicaid.
But when it comes to immigration, Bialik’s column has an interesting twist. Similar to American’s inaccurate numerology on foreign aid and United States entitlement programs, they also get the totals wrong on immigration—but less so. Findings show that Americans overestimate the percentage of foreign-born residents by more than a factor of two and the percentage in the country illegally by a factor of six or seven.
One reason for the failure to more accurately estimate numbers may be that many Americans don’t do well with math, have difficulty grasping large totals or misunderstand their meaning depending on the contexts in which they’re used. Some Americans don’t consider numbers related to federal policy as worth the effort to comprehend.
Ellen Peters, an Ohio State University psychologist said:
"Numbers are hard. They're difficult to evaluate and remember because they're abstract symbols. People are more likely to remember numbers accurately when that information is more valuable to them."
Apparently, immigration is important to Americans. Researchers corrected the participant’s numbers about foreign aid, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the correct data. They anticipated that the participants would adjust their opinions accordingly. Instead they found that the test groups supplied with the right numbers didn't change their views significantly.
Immigration is the exception.
Here’s the final paragraph from the Wall Street Journal story:
“Political scientists John Sides of George Washington University and Jack Citrin of the University of California, Berkeley, hypothesized in a working paper that supplying Americans, who typically overestimate the number of immigrants and illegal immigrants among them, with correct numbers would reduce the perceived threat of immigration and change their views. Instead, getting the right number reinforced their views and even increased their support for letting fewer immigrants into the U.S.” [My emphasis added.]
This is great news for us. Immigration has increasingly become a leading subject in the presidential primaries and in mainstream news reporting. The more Americans learn, the better chance CAPS has of successfully conveying our message that less immigration and fewer non-immigrant visas are essential for a stable population.
The complete 2008 study by Professors Sides and Citrin is on the George Washington University website. Read it here.