The Border Fence Principle / by William Poundstone

Americans who support a border fence are less likely to know where the border is, exactly. They are more likely to give a wrong answer to the question, “What country is New Mexico in?”

Just so we’re all on the same page: New Mexico is in the U.S. of A. It has been a state the whole lifetime of virtually everyone drawing breath; its votes have counted in every presidential election since its 1912 admission; Breaking Bad was shot there.

But about 9 percent of adult Americans can’t answer this question. The most common “wrong” answer is of course Mexico. 

My upcoming book, Head in the Cloud, began with a question we're all asking ourselves. Is there any point in knowing facts, now that facts are so easy to look up?

You’ve got a mobile device in your pocket. Pull up the Wikipedia page on New Mexico. It has all sorts of facts that even the best-educated are unlikely to know. WiFi is a great equalizer. At very least, our omnipresent cloud has reduced the need for the sort of rote memorization that once a routine part of education. The important thing, many educators and tech pundits will tell you, is to acquire the skills need to use today’s (and tomorrow’s) digital tools effectively.

An alternate view, more traditional and elitist, is that there is a canon of knowledge the well-educated person needs to know. This is the thesis of the cultural literacy movement and of Common Core standards. Yet it’s a hard sell in our diverse society. Who decides what facts matter?

In Head in the Cloud, I take a different approach, one grounded in data analytics. I look at correlations between knowledge and behavior, politics, and life outcomes. These correlations are often surprising, and there is much evidence that map knowledge matters.

In 2014 Russian troops entered the Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Americans were debating what, if anything, to do about it. Three political scientists, Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer, and Thomas Zeitzoff, ran a survey asking Americans to locate the Ukraine on a world map.

The researchers found that, the further a person’s guess was from the actual location of the Ukraine, the more likely it was that that person supported a U.S. military intervention in the Ukraine.

I ran a survey of assorted general knowledge questions, including finding a state or nation on a map. The survey also asked an opinion question: “There has been talk of building a border fence to prevent illegal immigration. On a scale of 0 to 10, how do you feel about this idea?”

The more factual questions a person answered correctly, the less likely that person was to favor a border fence. The correlation was impressively strong, even when holding educational level and age constant. It’s not just that the fence supporters were less educated. They knew less than others of the same educational level and age who did not support a border fence.

Those who couldn’t find places on a map were more likely to want a border fence. And here’s another question that was strongly connected to border fence support.

Scientists believe that early humans hunted dinosaurs such as Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus. True or false?

Those who said true wanted the border fence; those who said false didn’t.

Why are better-informed people more likely to oppose a border fence? I suspect the answer is that, whatever their feelings on illegal immigration, they know more facts that lead them to doubt the fence’s practicality. They know that the border, which might look “small” on a map, is actually very long and would cost a lot of money to build and maintain. They know that long tunnels have been built under the U.S.-Mexico border. A fence wouldn’t stop that, nor would it prevent people using ladders or rappels to get over it—unless the fence was guarded 24/7 at enormous expense. They know that the Great Wall of China was build to keep out the Mongols, who broke through and conquered China.

It’s human nature to avoid or minimize information that challenges deeply held beliefs. Thus the border fence supporters do not, for the most part, use their mobile devices to Google reasons why the idea won’t work. They already have an emotional commitment to the idea, based on promises of a simple solution to a complicated problem.

Meanwhile those with more contextual knowledge—a wide store of facts in their heads—were more skeptical of the border fence the first time they heard of it. They never committed to the idea, even if they were immigration hawks by ideology.

In short, the problem is that the people who could most benefit by looking up facts don’t know that they need to look up facts. You can’t Google a point of view.