I've recently come across some very interesting results from studies carried out by the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford University.
From their website:
Citizens are often uninformed about key public issues. Conventional polls represent the public's surface impressions of sound bites and headlines. The public, subject to what social scientists have called "rational ignorance," has little reason to confront trade-offs or invest time and effort in acquiring information or coming to a considered judgment.Of particular relevance are the results from an experiment undertaken in Northern Ireland:Selected Results
Each experiment conducted thus far has gathered a highly representative sample together at a single place. Each time, there were dramatic, statistically significant changes in views. The result is a poll with a human face. The process has the statistical representativeness of a scientific sample but it also has the concreteness and immediacy of a focus group or a discussion group. Taped and edited accounts of the small group discussions provide an opportunity for the public to reframe the issues in terms that connect with ordinary people.
The weekend samples have typically ranged in size from approximately 200 in the utility polls; however some have had numbers as high as 466, such as at the 1996 National Issues Convention. The process provides the data to evaluate both the representativeness of each microcosm and the statistical significance of the changes in opinion.
So, what do people think about this? Are most people less informed than they ought to be and are there effective ways we can tackle the problem, if so?
I suspect the major problems would be to do with logistics and fairness - i.e. ensuring that members of the public are educated rather than indoctrinated. It might be the case that we're better off with a less hands-on approach, given the potential for manipulation, but presumably it should be possible to provide citizens with the opportunity to become sufficiently educated about the issues without the risk of merely exposing them to propaganda. It's worth discussing, at any rate.