Friday, May 23, 2008

Should Kids Vote?

No, really. Stop giggling. It's a legitimate question, one that even had a journal article based on the premise.

I said stop giggling.

The author of the article in the International Journal of Children's Rights wrote:

"If democracy works well with a large number of adult voters with little or no knowledge of politics, it should also work with children voting."

As the father of two teenagers, two really smart teenagers, I have to say this idea deserves to be immediately trampled, squashed, spindled and mutilated. And then I'd do bad things to it, like make it watch American Idol.

But let's think about the basic idea, which seems to be that young people probably don't know a lot less than their adult counterparts. The fallacy here is that political knowledge is a valid measurement of the right to vote. Those days are long gone, at least in the U.S. Poll taxes and tests to cast your ballot are a thing of the Jim Crow South, not today. It's not political knowledge that is of issue here, nor even political competence (lots of numbskulls prove their numbskullery by voting opposite of me), but rather its a matter of combining experience and competence and knowledge and all the other things that go into play.

I'm not saying many adults who do vote have a clue, but we do not want to double or triple the number of uninformed voters by letting 16 year olds get in the ballot box and start pushing buttons, thinking it's an Xbox or way to access MySpace.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Clinton, and Knowing

During a CNN story the other day about the Kentucky primary, the reporters visited the poorest county in the state and asked about the Obama-Clinton battle, about McCain, about what life is like in the poorest county in the state. Pretty lousy, from what I could tell, and people there doubt it'll get any better no matter who is elected.

In a diner they asked a lady about Hillary Clinton. She snorted, then said (more or less): "It's in the Bible, a woman's place is in the home."

What people know is more than facts and figures. This woman knows. The wisdom of literally interpreting scripture is not my interest, but her knowing about Clinton does touch on how people make sense of the world. I'm more curious about viewers who caught that bit, because that ended the CNN segment. Many would see this and make a snap judgment about the woman (dumb, intelligent, sees the truth, sees nothing at all).

The power of a person selected to represent a county or city or neighborhood, that carries enormous influence on how viewers or readers make judgments. Exemplars, they're sometimes called in social psych. My first editor called them little person, big picture approaches to storytelling. In the lede of a story, we often see the poor little person approach and then a bridge to the big picture (health, economy, etc.). It all comes down to the same thing, that the powerful anecdote can have great influence on viewers and readers.

But, sometimes, not the way you think.

A set of experiments in the 70s looked at a series of TV stories about the lousy economy that either began (or didn't begin) with the poor little person. Politicians in office hate the poor little person lede, but curiously the research found viewers blamed the poor little person, not the system, for their struggles. Wow.

So we return to our Lady of the Diner. She knows about Clinton. The viewers now know about her. What people know, then, is a lot more complex than we sometimes think, all mixed up as it is in our own predispositions, the way journalists tell stories, the powerful anecdotes used.

When it comes down to Obama and McCain, as if likely will, then how journalists frame and tell their stories will say a great deal about what people know about these two men. And that, to some degree, helps settle the election.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Favorability and Obama

What people know about a candidate is often a summary of lots of facts, emotions, odds and ends, the flotsam and jetsom of how our minds take bits and pieces and create an overall impression. Or, in other words, the infamous "favorability" score.

Take Obama. His favorability ratings have generally improved over time, in part because more and more people learned who he is. In January of 2007, 28% had a favorable rating and 47% didn't have a clue who the guy is. By May 1, 2008, he was up to 44% "favorable" and only 6% hadn't heard of him (CBS/NYT poll).

All well and good, but how about those "negatives" that political pros talk about? He's tripled those, from 10% to 30%, during the same time period.

But what I'm writing about here is something a little different. Look at these set of numbers from two different polls conducted at about the same time about Sen. Obama.

CBS/NYT 44% favorable 30% unfavorable
USAToday/Gallup 58% favorable 37% unfavorable

Why the big difference? Perhaps small issues of sampling and the like, but look at the two questions.
  • Is your opinion of Barack Obama favorable, not favorable, undecided, or haven't you heard enough about Barack Obama yet to have an opinion?" CBS/NYT
  • "Next, I'd like to get your overall opinion of some people in the news. As I read each name, please say if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of these people -- or if you have never heard of them. How about Barack Obama?" USAToday/Gallup
CBS/NYT gets a higher "haven't heard of" number of 6%, compared to 1% for USAT/Gallup. I suspect the wording effects that a little, but the big difference in favorable ratings really catches the eye. Since "favorability" is a summation of what people know (and feel), I think the CBS/NYT list makes it easier to skip down to unfavorable or undecided or no opinion as compared to the other list. Question wording, then, makes a difference even in something as simple as what you think about someone. Also the CBS/NYT has more options, thus spreading the numbers out across the landscape. There is an "undecided" option not seen in the USAT/Gallup. I think that's vital, because sometimes, we just haven't decided how we feel about someone.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Spatial Violators

While the idea of spatial violation has a certain appeal, this research article is about people who tend to vote for candidates who, logically, they shouldn't vote for.


Lemme explain. You ask folks in a survey to rank candidates on a bunch of issues, then you ask people where they stand on the same issues. Logically, people should vote for the candidate who looks more or less like them on those issues. And most people do exactly that. But between 1972 and 2004, the range of "spatial violators" fell between 9% and 15% in the presidential election years.

Education is a key factor. Less-educated respondents tended to be violators as compared to those with greater education. Falls into the ideological and partisan consistency, or you can easily explain this through various persuasion paradigms, such as the elaboration likelihood model. Then again, ELM explains everything!, or it seems that way sometimes.

No real media aspect to this study, though I can think up lots of different and interesting ways to integrate media consumption patterns into the likelihood of being a violator, or not. News media consumption might cut both ways. High consumption could arguably lead to less consistency as people pick up on other traits or factors that sway their vote, or high consumption could reinforce ideological or partisan cues that lead to greater consistency. It's a neat question. Time to grab some NES data and crank up the SPSS...

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Risk and What We Know

People are lousy at evaluating risk. I've been reading a neat site called STATS that examines how statsitics shape the world and it especially focuses on media representations of risk, health, and research.

Sometimes, what people know is either wrong, or wrongheaded.

To help people evaluate health risks, the site has this list of questions people should ask about research or news stories based on research. Quite useful. And often we just get the odds wrong. One of their people wrote this piece for Psychology Today. I love the one where we tend to fear "spectacular, unlikely events" and how we substitute one risk for another, such as speeding up when we put on our seat belts. And finally my favorite, how worrying about risk is itself risky.

Me? No worries.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Numbers and Knowing

Interesting story from about a week ago in the Savannah Morning News about the school district not liking the numbers from a study it paid for on where growth might occur.

Why am I blogging about it? Because what we know, and what the numbers support, are often two very different things.

Plus there's a UGA connection, with demographer and professor Doug Bachtel being hired to do the work. The school system wondered where students were going to be among the various burbs growing outside of town, so which one gets a high school.

None of 'em, Bachtel says.

"Your population growth is among poor, urban, African-American," he told them.

Basically, the percentage growth out in the burbs looks impressive, but the base number is rather small. Growing from five to ten kids may be a 100% increase, but after all, it's just five more kids.

The board didn't like this, even threatened to sue. After all, they paid $33,000 for a report that failed the primary test of government consulting -- tell them what they already want to hear so they can do what they wanted to do in the first place, but have political cover through a consultant's numbers.


The board wants to build a school in the burbs, for in some cases very good political reasons, but probably not for the best policy reasons. There's a blurry line between the two, and as the father of kids in public schools not unlike those in Savannah, I can understand the board's rationale for building a burb school to stall white flight to private overindulged yuppie larvae schools or the white-flight county next door.

It's just that sometimes, the numbers aren't there, especially using the kind of numbers Bachtel was using, which he warned them are ripe with potential error.

So the school system got told what it didn't want to hear. Your growth is among poor city blacks, so why even bother building a school out in the burbs? They want a school out there, and I'm fairly sure that's what will happen in the long run.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Political Advertising

I blogged not so long ago about a meta-analysis that said, in part, that watching political ads leads to more learning about candidates and campaigns. Part of my thesis is that ads reach people largely tuned out of the process, thus increasing knowledge among these low-attention folks.

Okay, fine. So goes the theory, so goes some research. Then I stumble on this paper.

In contrast to previous research, we find little evidence that citizens are mobilized by or learn from presidential advertisements, but strong evidence that they are persuaded by them.

Drats. Data, once again, get in the way of good theory.

This is a unique real-world experiment by Huber and Arceneaux. "Advertising does a little to inform, next to nothing to mobilize, and a great deal to persuade potential voters." Ouch. What I can't tell from the analysis is whether the least interested were more affected, that is, was there an interaction effect for previous knowledge or attention or participation. I'll have to read deeper, and this is a unique single study versus a meta-analysis of several studies, but it does raise some interesting questions.

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Kool-Aid of Creationism

I go to church every Sunday, yet I find the idea of Intelligent Design and Creationism about as compelling as an episode of American Idol. The scientific support for the theory of evolution is overwhelming and I have no difficulty meshing my lifelong Christian beliefs with real science.

ID and C are religion dressed up as science, like lipstick on a pig. It just doesn't work.

But what people know is different than what actually is. For example, people were asked: "Do you think the scientific theory of evolution is well-supported by evidence and widely accepted within the scientific community?"

Obviously it is. Ask any real scientist. And yet, only 48 percent got it right and said yes. Thirty-nine percent got it wrong, 13 percent were unsure. In other words, over half of Americans fail basic science.

It's one thing to not believe in evolution. Stupid, but not surprising. But to get it so wrong about what the scientific community thinks, the people who do this stuff for a living, that's another issue altogether.

Half of Americans think humans were created in their present form. Never mind the piles of evidence to the contrary, never mind the lack of evidence to support an ID/C interpretation. Never mind that Americans tend to score low in just about every test compared to people in other countries, from geography to history to news to, yes, science.

What do people know? When it comes to science, at least half don't know a hell of a lot, and that's scary.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Reading, and What People Know

Reading is crucial to success, to understanding our world. It is critical thought in action. And yet, we suck at motivating and teaching kids to read. Here's the lede from the NYT:
President Bush’s $1 billion a year initiative to teach reading to low-income children has not helped improve their reading comprehension, according to a Department of Education report released on Thursday.

Reading First did not improve comprehension, did not improve the percentage of kids in early grades who read "at level," as it's called.

Set aside the politics, such as the Education Secretary who spent so much time praising the program who suddenly found herself unavailable for comment. Get to what matters.

Kids. Reading. And how they learn.

A lot of puzzle pieces must be in place for kids, or anyone, to learn. We can't integrate new knowledge without some base of knowledge, just like you can't build a tower of wooden blocks without a good foundation. This works for learning from the news about public affairs, this works for kids learning geography or math or history. If they don't read, they honestly can't do much of anything else very well. If they can't write, they can't think well.

Teens write. A lot. Unfortunately it's not always the kind of writing we might want to see (or read). A Pew study gets at some of this, whether the kind of writing teens do in instant messaging and the rest is the kind of writing we want them to learn. Basically, teens do not see this messaging as writing. They separate one from the other, which I find heartening and disheartening in the same, confused, state. This is kinda off topic of the reading study above, but it does fit if you stand on one leg, turn your head the right way, and cough.

At the core, we have a large group of kids who we can't seem to teach reading. We have a (different?) group of kids who write, but in ways that do not resemble what we'd normally think of as writing.

And we have to ask: will they learn as a consequence?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Knowing Specialized Stuff

I am going to do a flip here and talk briefly not about about what people in general know, but rather what people who do specialized jobs need to know.

Being a journalism guy, obviously I'll talk about reporters, mainly due to a report out today on education reporting. Here's the lede:

Reporters who cover education believe overwhelmingly that the beat requires specialized knowledge. Yet 39 percent of education reporters surveyed in February 2008 by the Hechinger Institute say they've received no such training, and just 6 percent report to an editor whose sole responsibility is supervising education coverage.

This is an old story in journalism -- assign someone a beat but provide them no special training. "You'll pick it up as you go," some grizzled editor says. "It's not brain surgery."

Only, sometimes, it is.

In the real world, companies train their people. Not journalism. Sure, a lucky few visit Poynter or the American Press Institute. Damn few. But it is vital we keep those country club memberships available for publishers, who have more or less led newspapers to their doom.

What people know is sometimes how to do their job, the little details. Psychologists often call this sophistication, as in picking up on nuances and using a base of knowledge to recognize and learn new facts. Journalism is gutting itself to remain profitable. The ultimate losers? People who care about the world, because what journalists know about what they cover will become more and more threatened in a world that becomes more and more complicated.