Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Young and the News

It is a well known finding that age correlates with political knowledge. Do a survey and older respondents do better than younger respondents on pretty much any kind of test you want to give them (who is speaker of the House? what party controls Congress? what are the two main branches of Islam?).

But do people encourage their children to keep up with the news, which logic suggests would make them better able to answer such questions and be better citizens by making informed choices when they get to actually vote?


A Pew study found that teens are more encouraged than younger kids to keep up with the news. Makes sense. Even kinda obvious. You want to screen younger kids from some of the stuff. In fact I'm a little puzzled by the 29 percent who say they never screen their 6-and-under aged kids from the news. We want informed citizens, not children in need of therapy.

Again, not surprisingly, partents who attend carefully to the news are more likely to encourage their own children to do the same.

The information rich get richer. The chronic know-nothings spawn more of the same.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Religion and Knowledge

A study of mine will soon be published that asks a fairly straightforward (and maybe obvious) question: shouldn't people with strong religious beliefs be better able to answer questions about a candidate's religion than those without strong religious beliefs?

Let me explain, hopefully without too much theory stuff.

The argument is simple. When something matters to you a great deal, you are primed to pick up on that information. I taught at Oxford last summer, so when Oxford pops up in the news, I am primed to attend and recall that info. Same way with religion.

I looked at two sets of questions from the presidential election, whether people could correctly answer questions about a candidate's religious affiliation and his state of residence. I figured people with strong religious invovlement would be more accurate about various candidate's religious affiliations. They'd know Bush was a Methodist, etc. Keep in mind that people with strong religious involvement generally do pretty lousy on tests of political knowledge.

The results? Kinda okay. While generally strong religious people do awful on tests of knowledge, they managed to not do so badly when asked for the candidate's religious affiliation. They sucked at regular knowledge questions that we traditionally ask, so there was some support for my idea that religion, for these people, is a ( PhDweeb alert! ) chronically accessible construct. Simply put, religion matters to them and they pick up on the religion of candidates, even those they do not plan on supporting.

The article will be published soon in the Journal of Media and Religion.

Monday, May 14, 2007

School Choice and Political Knowledge

There's an interesting report out today that suggests that kids who attend schools based on choice (either private or choice within a system) do better on all kinds of stuff, from civic engagement to political knowledge. The actual study is here.

This is a meta analysis of other research. Basically you take a bunch of studies on the same topic and through statistical analysis look to see if the effect is "robust" across all studies. The author argues this is the case and, I suspect, he is right.

And yet ...

Coincidence alert. School choice comes off well here. The author is, ahem, "professor of education reform and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions." Gee, find that suspicious? A coincidence? Nah!
Just turn off that BS detector. It'll keep you awake at night.

None of this is surprising. Private (er, sorry, choice) students come from families that are more involved, better educated, and provide greater resources to their children -- thus these kids come off better in tests of political knowledge or even volunteerism (how else you gonna get into the National Honor Society?).

The author says, "In summary, the empirical studies to date counter the claims of school choice opponents that private schooling inherently and inevitably undermines the fostering of civic values." I couldn't agree more. But what I suspect is different are the reasons behind volunteerism and other civic values. The study leaves this unanswered.

Son of Recall vs Recognition

Begin preachy sermon ...

I admit I find fascinating the whole recall versus recognition thing in how we measure political knowledge. Very nearly all of our "tests" of knowledge are of recall: who is the president of Russia? what party controls Congress? name the judges on American Idol?

We know from decades of research that people who rely on TV for news perform miserably on standard political knowledge tests. Hell, there is some evidence that the more you watch TV the less you know about public affairs, an effect we carefully dubbed cog-sucking, as in sucking out cognitions (thinking). You gotta pronounce that one with some care.

But what it really comes down to is this -- watching TV does not translate well into tests of recall. Recognition? Maybe so.

So why don't more scholars use recognition tests? In part because they seem too easy, and in part because we are print-oriented, and newspaper reading is about the only media use item that is consistently related to how much of a clue you have to what is happening in the least by tests of, you guessed it, recall.

Watching TV is inadvertent, haphazard exposure. You see a little here, a little there, while doing other stuff. You pick up the news in bits and, if you know a little background, try to file it away in the right cubbyhole of longterm memory. If you don't know a lot, then relying only on TV means you think you know when actually you only vaguely remember what's going on.

You may sense this every day as a "feeling of knowing" or the "tip of the tongue" phenomenon, when you almost know an answer but can't quite pull it out of your head. Recognition will measure this almost ability, recall will not. As more and more of the world gets its news from bits and pieces of TV and the Internet, we may see a dramatic decrease in how people do on recall tests.

So maybe it's time we started using more recognition tests and getting a sense of how "almost knowing" is integrated in how we form or maintain attitudes about candidates, about issues, about stuff that matters.

... end of my preachy sermon.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Political Knowledge over Time

The political knowledge of the U.S. electorate has changed little over the last several decades, this despite an enormous expansion of educational opportunities and channels of information. In other words, people should be smarter and they have more ways to find stuff out, yet there has been no gain in how much they know. One scholar called this the paradox of mass politics.

Me? I blame TV, but that's another post for another time.

Instead, just look at the graph created by the fine folks at NES. Sure it jumps around a bit. Each election is unique. If you draw a flat line you might find a small, stumbling decline, but you can also see in the 1990s the control of Congress became a huge story, especially when the Republican Party took control in 1994, thus improving accuracy by the public. Plus in off-years the accuracy sucks because, usually, real people don't care.

The lesson? Maybe it's Congress matters less and less in people's lives. Maybe the media devote less time to this. Maybe it really doesn't matter. For me, the lesson is that when an issue gains the attention of journalists and the elite, there is a trickle down effect for the public as well. Coverage improves knowledge, especially when there is an ideological or partisan edge.

The not-so-silent hand of the marketplace of ideas, hard at work for us all.

Monday, May 7, 2007

Those Who Don't Know ...

All kinds of knowledge matters. Science. Math. Public affairs.


Seems to me history is kinda important given the old saying: Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In just about every topic except maybe how to use MySpace, U.S. kids suck at tests of knowledge. History is no different. A few high points from a recent survey:

  • 23% thought JFK was the one who lamented that he had only one life to give to his country.
  • 63% could not name in what war the Battle of the Bulge was fought. I'm guessing yet another example of obesity influencing our kids.
  • 7% thought Sputnik was the first animal to travel in space. Everyone knows his name was Mr. Spock.
  • 65% of college seniors could not pass a high school history test.

Feel smart? Take it yourself.

So what's going on? Is it the No Child Left Untested? Are kids just dumber today? Are we busy teaching them the test for math and reading that history gets shortchanged? I dunno, but I can say from watching my public middle school kids that "social studies" is the weakest subject area. Any inadvertent exposure they used to have to the news is largely gone and replaced by a thousand other ways to stare at cell phones or check their personal web pages.

Knowledge of history matters. Here's my favorite "history" quote: Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Recall vs Recognition

It matters how you ask the question.

The Pew Study mentioned below tested whether it makes a difference if you ask people a recall question (Who is the president of Russia) versus can you tell me which of these guys is the president of Russia (answer: Putin). Scroll down to the sixth table. The results are simple: 36% got the recall question right. They could pull out of their heads (or some other body part) Putin's name. Give them a multiple guess and 60% nail the recognition question.

Hey, we're not so stupid after all.

In my own research there is support for the idea that television is better suited for recognition-based knowledge while print is better suited for recall-based knowledge. I'll explore this more at some other time, but it says a great deal about how we measure knowledge and whether our tests mean what we think they mean.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Name Calling Makes You Smarter

Bill O'Reilly is a helluva TV guy. He knows the medium, knows how to work an audience, and according to a new study he knows how to call people names -- every 7 seconds!

You have to respect skill like that.

To be fair, this bad-mouthing every 6.8 seconds occurs only during that brief editorial he gives at the beginning of every The O'Reilly Factor. No way he can keep that up for an hour. No one can. I know, I've tried it in my classes.

So what does this have to do with political knowledge, with what people know? The Pew Center reports that the O'Reilly audience is pretty damn smart, at least compared with the audiences gathered by other news and entertainment outlets. Nationwide about 35% of Americans score in the "high knowledge" category in the Pew study while 51% of the O'Reilly audience scores at that rate.

The dumbest audience? Morning network television shows at 34%. Then again, you probably already knew that. The highest? Visitors to newspaper web sites and viewers of the Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert tandem on Comedy Central.

So it isn't just calling names that makes people smart, it's making the news funny? No, it has more to do with the kind of audience each source draws. Fox News is only at 35%, after all, while the CNN audience is at 41%, meaning I suppose that only the smart Fox viewers watch O'Reilly's name calling while those without a clue watch the rest of the network programs.

Then again, I suspect we already knew that.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Yet Another Blog

The world is full of blogs. Welcome to yet another one.

The title What People Know is not all that informative, rather ironic given my focus on how and what people learn from the media. What kind of media? News and entertainment. Mass and personal. Jon Stewart and The New York Times and rap and rock. High school social studies and social networks like MySpace or Second Life.

Okay, that's the independent variable -- all those media we use to learn about the world, the issues that matter, our perceptions of politicians and people. So what's the dependent variable? What do I mean by know? This can be a simple as political knowledge (which isn't all that simple and we'll visit this in another post). It can mean perceptions of groups, like immigrants. I'll try to focus on how we learn about important stuff.

I will look at how we measure knowledge, how we fail to measure it well, and how the results depend on the questions you ask and the media people use. Why does this matter? An informed public is vital for a democracy to thrive. It says so right here in my civics textbook, so it must be true.

I will use links and stuff on later posts, doing all the bloggy things one must do to satisfy the Bloggods. That's for another day.