My Ignorance Provokes Me: I know Where Ukraine is and I Still Want to Fight

It’s been too long since I prattled into cyberspace.  This Monkey Cage post by Kyle Dropp  Joshua D. Kertzer & Thomas Zeitzoff caught my contrarian attention.  In a nutshell, it says that those who are less informed about the location of Ukraine are more likely to support US military intervention.  This is an intriguing and policy-relevant finding from a smart design.  That said, the post’s conclusion is summarized as: “the further our respondents thought that Ukraine was from its actual location, the more they wanted the U.S. to intervene militarily.”  The implication from the post (inferred by me, but also by several others, I aver) is that this is an indication of irrationality.  I hate to spoil the surprise, but I am going to offer a rationalization for this apparent disconnect.

First, however, the study’s methodology—very cool in many ways—caught my eye, only because (in my eyes) the post’s authors imbue the measure with too much validity with respect to the subjects’ “knowledge.”  Specifically, the study asked people to click on a map where they think Ukraine is located.  The study then measures the distance between the click and Ukraine.[1]  Then Dropp, Kertzer, & Zeitzoff state that this

…distance enables us to measure accuracy continuously: People who believe Ukraine is in Eastern Europe clearly are more informed than those who believe it is in Brazil or in the Indian Ocean.

I disagree with the strongest interpretation of this statement.  While I agree that people who believe Ukraine is in Eastern Europe are probably (not clearly, because some might guess/click randomly on Eastern Europe, too) more informed than those who “believe it is in Brazil or in the Indian Ocean,” I would actually say that the example chosen by the authors suggests that distance is not the right metric.  For example, someone who thinks Ukraine is Brazil is clearly wrong about political geography, but someone who thinks that Ukraine is located in the middle of an ocean is clearly wrong about plain-ole geography.

More subtly, it’s not clear that the “distance away from Ukraine” is a good measure of lack of knowledge.  In a nutshell, I aver that there are two types of people in the world: those who know where Ukraine is and those who do not.  Distinguishing between those who do not by the distance of their “miss” is just introducing measurement error, because (by supposition/definition) they are guessing.  That is, the true distance of miss is not necessarily indicative of knowledge or lack thereof.  Rather, if you don’t know where Ukraine is, then you don’t know where it is.

Moving on quickly, I will say the following.  It is not clear at all that not knowing where a conflict is should (in the sense of rationality) make one less likely to favor intervention. The key point is that if anyone is aware of the Crimea/Ukraine crisis, they probably know[2] that there is military action.  This isn’t Sochi, after all.

So, I put two thought experiments out there, and then off to the rest of the night go I.

First, suppose someone comes up to you and says, “there’s a fire in your house,” and then rudely runs off, leaving you ignorant of where the fire is.  What would you do…call the fire department, or run through the house looking for the fire?  I assert that either response is rational, depending on other covariates (such as how much you are insured for, whether you live in an igloo, and if you have a special room you typically freebase in).  The principal determinant in this case in many situations is the IMPORTANCE OF PUTTING OUT THE FIRE, not the cost of accidentally dowsing one too many rooms with water.

Second, the Ukraine is not quite on the opposite side of the world from the US, but it’s pretty darn close (Google Maps tells me it is a 15 hour flight from St. Louis).  So, let’s think about what “clicking far from Ukraine when guessing where Ukraine is” implies about the (at least in the post) unaddressed correlation of “clicking close to the United States when guessing where Ukraine is”?  This picture demonstrates where each US survey respondent clicked when asked to locate Ukraine.  Focus on the misses, because these are the ones that will drive any correlation between “distance of inaccuracy and support for foreign intervention” correlation. (Because distances are bounded below by zero and a lot of people got Ukraine basically right.)

There are a lot of clicks in Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. I am going to leave now, but the general rule is that the elliptic geometry of the globe (and the fact that the Ukraine is not inside the United States[3]) implies that clicking farther away from Ukraine means that you are, with some positive (and in this case, significant) probability clicking closer to the United States.

So, suppose that the study said “those who think the Ukraine is located close to the US are more likely to support military intervention to stem Russian expansion?”  Would that be surprising?  Would that make you think voters are irrational?

Look, people have limited time and aren’t asked to make foreign policy decisions very often (i.e., ever).  So, let’s stop picking on them.  It is elitist, and it offers nothing other than a headline/tweet that draws elitists (yes, like me) to your webpage.

Also, let’s not forget that, as far as I know, there is no chance in the current situation of the United States government intervening in the Ukraine. So, even if voters are irrational, maybe that’s meta: we have an indirect democracy for a reason, perhaps?


[1] If I was going to get really in the weeds, I would raise the question of which metric is used to measure distance between a point and a convex shape with nonempty interior.  There are a lot of sensible ones. And, indeed, the fact that there isn’t an unambiguously correct one is actually an instantiation of Arrow’s theorem.  Think about that for a second.  And then thank me for not prattling on more about that.  [That’s called constructing the counterfactual. –Ed.]

[2] And, as the authors state, “two-thirds of Americans have reported following the situation at least “somewhat closely,

[3] Just think about conducting this same survey with a conflict in Georgia.  Far-fetched, right?  HAHAHAHA

2 thoughts on “My Ignorance Provokes Me: I know Where Ukraine is and I Still Want to Fight

  1. I don’t see how their argument implies anything about irrationality or rationality. It involves the connection between (mis)information and policy preferences.

    • Fair point. I was taking the next step that some in the literature on how people vote (e.g., Healy & Malhotra, Achen & Bartels, etc.) have been taking. I suppose that’s a bit unfair, but at the same time, if we don’t take some next step, this is just a correlation. That is, unless we want to think about the origins/implications of the connection between (mis)information and policy preferences, why would we concern ourselves with establishing this specific correlation?

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