Ignorant Democracy: The Gap Between Perception and Reality

It’s understandable that there should be a match between perception and reality. Every morning I wake up, brew a cup of coffee and, reassuringly, the coffee is hot as I pick it up. We are trained naturally to put our perceptions and translate them into reality. Still, in the time that I have been involved in civic engagement, one of the biggest problems that I’ve seen, and faced myself, is the growing difficulty in distinguishing the gap between perceived reality and truth. On a daily basis, we engage in conversation that draws from our experiences and our opinions, but the real problem is revealed when decisions are made based on opinions rather than fact (or partial-facts at that!)—which, in fact, leads to more harm than good. It wasn’t until I realized this, that I understood what JFK meant when he said, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.”

The Paradox of the Partial-Truth

It’s like the classic Indian Tale about giving eight blind men an elephant to touch in order to understand what it is like.  As each man feels a different part of the elephant, they can’t seem to agree on what exactly the elephant is. Each is fervently sticking to what they believe it is without realizing that they need the harmony of each other’s “partial truths” to get a grasp on the whole picture.


Case Study: The Sobering Truth of Wealth Inequality in America

Perceptions can create an incorrect assessment of the situation leading to skewed solutions. In the case of perception alleviating reality, you can examine this recent video titled “Wealth Inequality in America” reflecting the studies of a Harvard Professor on the perception and reality of economic disparity. The general perception of the wealth inequality is that it’s “bad.” But how bad is “bad?”


What people think of the wealth inequality in America versus the reality of it is quite different. The video goes on to explain how the ideal is as far removed from our perception of reality as the actual distribution is from what we THINK exists in this country. The bottom 40% of Americans barely have any of the wealth, and the top one percent of people have more of the country’s wealth than 9 out of the 10 people believe the top 20 percent of the people have.

The sobering reality is that it’s a lot worse than what we thought.

How much of your own perceived opinions, deprived of a fact-checking, can you trust when you make decisions for your community? I know that I’VE been caught deer-in-headlights when what I indeed thought was fact was merely a misunderstanding (See Wikipedia: Chinese Whispers Game).


Wikipedia: Chinese Whisperers is a game played around the world, in which one person whispers a message to another, which is passed through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. Errors typically accumulate in the retellings, so the statement announced by the last player differs significantly, and often amusingly, from the one uttered by the first. Reasons for changes include anxiousness or impatience, erroneous corrections, and that some players may deliberately alter what is being said to guarantee a changed message by the end of the line.

Unless your perceptions are aligned with reality through cold, hard research and knowledgeable insights, the solutions that we come up with as a community on a city, state, and national level won’t be ideal. In contrast to the reality of wealth inequality, perceptions can aggravate issues out of proportion just as they can alleviate them.

Case Study: Is There Really a Crime Wave in Santa Cruz?

Right now, Santa Cruz is suffering from an image problem, mostly due to the fact that many of the negative events happening in Santa Cruz have been getting spotlight. It is true, Santa Cruz has one of the highest per capita crime rates in California, and has significantly been above the US average in both violent and property crime for over a decade. What I’m addressing is the fact that people are inaccurately twisting information to aggravate reaction based on statements that aren’t 100% true. When people throw terminology like “crime wave” and “increased crime rates,” it’s an inaccurate display of what is really going on in Santa Cruz. If you take a look at the Santa Cruz crime statistics (below), there is no significant increase in crime, and if you really look at the numbers carefully, it seems as the numbers are actually going down.

Here are the crime statistics that show the number of counts for each category, as well as the month to month comparison of 2012/2013 & the Year-to-Date stats taken directly from the Santa Cruz Monthly Police Reports.

City of Santa Cruz Aug 2013 Monthly Police Crime Stats https://civinomics.com/images/photos/0/orig/04bec5b4a9c8b31c8e398a30fb34d1f8.png

City of Santa Cruz 2012-2013 Monthly Police Crime Stats Comparison (up to Aug 2013)

Gather the insight from data. Almost all the categories from the August crime comparison for 2012 & 2013 as well as the Year to Date statistic show a decrease except for ‘Homicide,’ ‘Arson,’ and ‘Burglary.’ But looking at the percentage increases, keep in consideration that changes in smaller numbers tend to make very dramatic percentage changes and may lead to misunderstanding of the data.

So technically, based on these numbers, it’s inaccurate to say there has been a crime wave, but considering in February 2013, Santa Cruz experienced major media scrutiny after two police officers lost their lives in the line of duty and another gang-related shooting happened in downtown Santa Cruz, it is understandable the sudden spark of interest in crime.

Narrowing the Gap

This isn’t by any means an argument to diminish efforts against fixing Santa Cruz’s crime problem. It’s about addressing issues head on with an informed community of people who want to make a difference. As Roosevelt put it, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

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