Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Just in Time for Xmas

Need a last-minute present for that political junkie on your list? Try the game The Political Machine. Play as Obama, as McCain, as Biden, or really have fun and be Palin (no obvious Tina Fey option, who was named AP's Entertainer of the Year.

Deal with pesky journalists. Match-up against others in multiplayer mode. Randomize issues and poll results, plan the perfect campaign.

There ya go, a Christmas special.

Monday, December 22, 2008

What people know about professions is in part due to direct experience, in part due to what other people have told them, and in part due to how these jobs are portrayed in the mass media.

That's why I've always thought it'd be cool to teach a class in the image of journalists in in popular culture. But of course, like all great ideas, someone thought of it first. Grrr.
They even have a neat mission statement:
The mission of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of The Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is to investigate and analyze, through research and publication, the conflicting images of the journalist in film, television, radio, fiction, commercials, cartoons, comic books, music, art, demonstrating their impact on the American public's perception of newsgatherers.
Typical -- I'm always far behind the curve, back over the hill, not even to the bend, lost somewhere without a map and never willing to ask directions. I still think it'd be a cool graduate class to offer, but honestly it'd work better if one of our history folks took it on.

All professions suffer, or are helped by, how they are portrayed in the mass media. TV does the most good, or most damage, to a lot of jobs. I expect my doctors to all be tortured geniuses like House. I'd love to see someone do a careful analysis of popular presentations of "the journalist" and track that with attitudes the public has about journalists to see if there is any correlation, any effect on what people know about news gatherers. My hunch? No relationship at all, but it'd be fun to find out.

Sunday, December 21, 2008


A psychologist replicated what are perhaps the most infamous experiment, showing that people really will torture others if told to do so. This is the one about shocking people and how likely subjects are to turn on the heat on other subjects. Story here. A graph explains:

More than two-thirds of volunteers in the research study had to be stopped from administering 150 volt shocks of electricity, despite hearing a person's cries of pain, professor Jerry M. Burger concluded in a study published in the January issue of the journal American

And so it goes.

What People Search For

Playing with Google Analytics you can find all kinds of useless info about your site. The most read blog topics from whatpeopleknow are:
  1. Knowledge vs. Emotion
  2. Recall vs. Recognition
  3. Son of Recall vs. Recognition
  4. What Happened in 1066
  5. Objective vs. Subjective Knowledge

Other top finishers were blogs on chronic know-nothings, negative advertising, communicating science, and my personal favorite -- titular colonicity.

I should put links on each of these to their respective blogs on whatpeopleknow, but it's Sunday and I don't have that much motivation (except that I'm supposed to be finishing my grading, so this beats that). The individual blogs above were the best read of all my posts in 2008. Obviously the first three and maybe the last popped up on Google searches by people doing research in, or writing papers about, kinds of knowledge. That's cool. Hoped I helped.

Google was my top traffic source, with 43 percent coming via a search from that site. Twenty-seven percent came from my own web page. About 13 percent of traffic came directly here. Odds and ends make up the rest.

Nearly all my visits are from the U.S. Second is the U.K., followed by Canada, Vietnam, China, Singapore, and a bunch of others at just a few hits each. Georgia obviously dominates among the states, followed by California, New York, Texas, Florida, etc., no doubt a function of population since those are the biggest states. Not a single visit from my home state of Tennessee, despite me being fairly sure they have Internet there.

October 19 was my single biggest audience day, and the pre-election time saw my highest consistent traffic.

I've had interesting visits and comments, one by an author unhappy with my trashing of his book, another by a conservative documentarian unhappy about others commenting on his Obama film, and at least one by an hold friend of mine from elementary school.

And that wraps up 2008 in blogging about what people know.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Helluva POQ

A great new issue of Public Opinion Quarterly touches on many of my favorite topics: political knowledge, false consensus, innumeracy, trust in government. I've blogged about several of these already and so I'll top off my week with false consensus.

I love false consensus, always have. It's the idea that people project their own opinions and behaviors on the public at large. In other words, if I enjoy police procedural novels, I am more likely to overestimate how many people out there also enjoy police procedurals. Magdalena Wojcieszak takes the false consensus concept on the road and online to examine neo-Nazis and environmental extremists (what lovely groups) to see if the concept holds up.

It does.

For example, those participating in neo-Nazi online discussion boards overestimated how much people dislike progress in equal rights.

Part of this is due to the fragmenting media environment in which crazy people, or mildly nutso people, can group together in common cause and this selective exposure to similar others makes participants more likely to overestimate how much people agree with them. If I hang out on a discussion board of police procedural fans, my sense of the climate of opinion out there will be skewed and I'll think more people like them than really do.
(as an aside, read Ian Rankin's John Rebus novels. Bloody brilliant)

So it's a good issue of POQ for me. Good blogging material, and stuff I like to read and think about. If they'd only included a research article on the best Christmas gifts to get your wife I'd be really really happy.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Knowing It's Bad

People know it's bad out there, in terms of national economy and personal finances. The Pew Center provides a graphical display to the right as part of their overall report on what people know about the economic mess.

It'll be an ugly Christmas, a difficult 2009, and -- if we're lucky -- when 2010 is just around the corner we'll see the faintest glimmer of light at the end of a long, dark, dank, economic tunnel.

More on Zogby, Supidity

Rick Shenkman, author of Just How Stupid Are We?, comments on the now infamous Zogby poll showing Obama supporters to be, er, um, stupid. The poll won gobs of coverage out there in netland, particularly among conservatives who love seeing Obama voters unable to answer the simplest of questions and among liberals who challenge the nature of the survey, its methodology, and how bad it makes them feel.

The guy who sponsored the poll, John Zeigler, has made a cottage industry out of anti-Obama screeds and the How Obama Got Elected documentary.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Discouraging "Don't know" Responses

A Methodological Moment

An interesting Public Opinion Quarterly piece follows a line of research about the measurement of political knowledge and whether we should encourage or discourage "don't know" responses. Using an online survey, the authors argue that eliminating the "DK" response works fine and it removes self confidence and other psychological factors that influence results.

It's a fine analysis, excellent discussion. Given the holiday season and grades to be recorded, I'm gonna talk only about a few key points.

"With the DK-omitted strategy, confident risk takers are no longer privileged relative to those who lack confidence or are risk averse."

First, the writer in me absolutely hates the use of privileged in this instance. Setting that aside, basically people willing to guess often get items right even when they don't know. Removing DK takes this out of the equation.

"While estimates of political knowledge have been consistently low, it is clear that question design may be a confounding factor. As web surveys become more ubiquitous, the DK omitted strategy is an increasingly viable option for measuring political knowledge."

I agree, but worry how this applies to traditional telephone or F2F (face to face) surveys. "I dunno" is an easy out, true, but in those people-based interactions not giving them an out might create survey difficulties. Hard feelings. Frustration. Guessing. All bad, all adding random error or perhaps even systematic error. In most surveys, the "don't knows" are often collapsed with incorrect answers to be scored as a "0" and correct responses getting a "1" in some kind of summed index. In other words, "don't know" often is the same as being wrong.

(As an aside, I prefer a -1 for getting it wrong, 0 for dunno, 1 for being right, but I've not used it very often because the results look just about the same as the traditional approach.)

But as we move more and more to online use of surveys, the arguments here are well taken and important for those who research what people know.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

End of the World,
Coming to a City
Near You

Not surprising, yet stunning nonetheless. The two Detroit newspapers will deliver only three issues a week to homes rather than seven. Story here. The end comes, both for newspapers and what people know.

Thanks, Canada

Books, nay whole careers, are built around ranting about the idea that Americans are just plain dumb. For one example, there's Just How Stupid Are We? Not picking on this one, just a handy example.

Well, thank God for Canada.

Half of Canadians don't know how their prime minister is selected, only a quarter knew the Queen is their Head of State, and so on and so on. Read a version of the survey here, an online survey of 1,070 Canadians from Dec. 9 to Dec. 12. I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to feel better about the U.S., worse about Canada, or just glad this gives me something to blog about on a slow day.

I suspect this can be found across any number of western democracies, as people shift their attention from news to entertainment, as they skim headlines online rather than read stories in more depth from dead-tree print, as they catch a bit of cable news and call themselves informed, as schools leave No Child Left Untested and as a result spend more time on math (that's on the test) and not civics (which isn't).

Newspapers suffer, and political knowledge declines? Coincidence? Methinks not, but all we can do now is hope online can make up some kind of difference, because TV simply isn't up to the task.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Google and What People Know

There is some wailing and gnashing of teeth among the right on whether that dominant net player, Google, is somehow biased in what pops up on our screen when we do a search. In this case, I assume it's a bias against conservatives (otherwise, would the bother complaining?).

Okay, so I did the same search on news from Yahoo and Google using two terms: Obama, and Blagojevich. Topical. Open for some bias. After all, while loonies and the left wish this would all go away, wackos on the right see a conspiracy. So if the theory holds, Google's news should be more supportive of Obama than the sites plucked out by Yahoo.

Top hit on Yahoo? A poll that says 45 percent of Americans suspect Obama or one of his top aides was involved in the job-selling scandal. The top hit on Google? A Republican advertisement about "unanswered questions" in the Obama-Blagojevich connection. In other words, a tie.

The Yahoo links come from CNN, Bloomberg, NPR, some newspapers. The Google links? Something called Right Pundits, then newspapers, Fox, CNN. Basically, a tie.

So in my quick-and-dirty, methodologically challenged approach, no real suspicious stuff going on here by Google, at least not when compared to Yahoo. Conspiracy theorists, sorry.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Even with fact checks on the web, on TV, on buses and billboards, the public still got bamboozled in the recent campaign, or so say well known researchers in a Newsweek article. Great analysis of Annenberg data to examine the disinforming of the American electorate. Worth the read, and a weekend special because I happen to be near a computer. There is a slight ideological/partisan tinge to the piece, a nah-nah aimed at McCain and his supporters and anyone who spread misleading info about Obama, or hell, any info that didn't paint Obama in a perfect halo, but that's just the hard news guy in me coming out.

I thought the Obama worship was over, that we'd moved on. Hell, I voted for the guy, but I'm not putting in to the pope to reward the guy with sainthood. At least not yet.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Civic Engagement

Getting young people engaged in the political process has long been a focus of scholars, advocates, and of course politicians and political parties who desperately seek their precious votes.

But do celebrities help in getting people involved?

One study suggests yes, they do. Celebrity endorsements of political engagement can make a difference, though one that is probably short-lived, by attracting young people who often identify with those celebrities. These endorsements led to higher self-efficacy and lower complacency among young respondents as part of a study in the 2004 campaign. The end result was more engagement.

That's the good news, though it being short-lived is probably the bad news. The theory is that once we get people used to participating or voting, they'll do it again and again. Addiction theory at its best, but the data suggest otherwise.

And again I say it -- damn those data. I need a bumper sticker with that line, or maybe a t-shirt.

It'll be interesting to see the 2008 version of this study, what with Barack Obama's attraction to younger voters. I suspect in 2008 celebrity endorsements of engagement were almost redundant to Obama's candidacy and had no real effect. Again, we'll have to let the data tell us the tale.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Homophobic Innumeracy

Not only does the general public do a lousy job of answering political knowledge questions, it also suffers from statistical innumeracy. In other words, we suck at estimating risk, at how much the government spends on foreign aid, and -- it seems -- how many gay people there are out there.

A new Public Opinion Quarterly study by three people (two of who I took for class as a grad student!) looks at homophobic innumeracy and finds that, indeed, the public is bad at this. Then again, the public is bad at estimating the size of other minority populations. As the authors note, people "aim high" in these estimates.

People in the certain demographic groups aim the highest, or "mis-estimate" the most: woman, less educated, blacks. Not coincidentally these folks also tend to score lowest on political knowledge tests. Interestingly, they find no real relationship between religious beliefs, even a literal interpretation of the Bible, and overestimation.

Following politics was associated with less overestimation. Or, I suppose, more accurate estimation. Unfortunately that's as close as the authors get to a media variable. I'd love to know whether exposure to the news made one more or less likely to overestimate the number of gays and lesbians in society. My guess is that media exposure would lead to greater overestimation by segments of society. Why? Because you see gays marching or protesting or dealing with some legislation on the news, you're more likely to think there are a lot of them, or at least more of them than exist in the population.

The funny part is, there are people who argue about the numbers here. It's one of those great debates, like what's the actual number of people who attend religious services. It all depends on your methodology.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

iReporter? No, that's an Eyewitness

Great LATimes piece fussing at CNN and its use of "iReporters" when they're really eyewitnesses. The "iReporter" provided vital information about the F/A-18D crash in San Diego -- it was awful. It was terrible.

That's not reporting.

In the piece by Patt Morrison, "But whenever the [CNN] anchor asked for hard specifics -- how many people in the jet, whether he or she or they ejected safely, the sort of thing that constitutes the core of news reporting -- the ''iReporter'' had to keep referring to what that she'd seen or heard on the local news."

A reporter weaves from a tapestry of eyewitness accounts, trained observation, facts and figures, expert commentary, and skill with the written or spoken word, depending on your platform. Saying it was terrible, it was awful. That's not reporting, with or without an "i" stuck cleverly before it in lower case.

I understand the sometimes desperate need for "i" before a word, be it "pod" or "tunes" or "reporter" or whatever the hell else we can come up with. It looks cool. It says we're about the people, we're involving the audience, we're getting cheap, unpaid, often unskilled labor and using it to our journalistic advantage. These are tough times in the news business, but at some point this all becomes a bit silly, a bit sad.

Am I against citizen journalism? No, though that's as god-awful a phrase as public journalism or whatever last year's craze was called, and I'm not convinced what people know about the world is actually helped, and is probably hurt, by reliance on this kind of mediocre content.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Newspaper Cuts

Newspapers are chopping at the muscle, at the bone, to cut costs. This is sad on any number of levels, but it also raises serious questions about what people will know, especially about local government, as fewer reporters hit the streets on their behalf.

Nobody covers a community like the local newspaper. TV can't do it. Radio won't. A handful of bloggers provide interesting local commentary, but few spend the shoe leather to sit through long meetings or to dig through courthouse records or visit, every day, the police and read piles of incident reports. And then there is the investigative side of daily newspaper journalism, the watchdog role that sometimes catches the bad guys doing what they shouldn't be doing.

The bad guys, I'm afraid, are about to have a field day. Developers and their bought-and-paid-for politicians will soon have a free ride thanks to fewer reporters checking the records, attending meetings, sniffing out good stories. I'm hoping a few independent bloggers will take on this role, and I suspect quite a few will, but the systematic coverage of local government will suffer.

What people know about their communities, their schools, that's the important day-to-day stuff that matters more to lives than national or international coverage, yet we'll see less and less of this.

And we'll know less.

Monday, December 8, 2008

SPANning the globe ...

Our friends down under will get a version of C-SPAN, called A-SPAN, according to this article which includes the funny headline: OUR newest TV channel may be the most boring.

More boring than C-SPAN? Let the contest begin!!!

So why do I mention this? Because, in theory, these kinds of direct-access networks should increase political knowledge. It's raw stuff, unedited by those pesky journalists, the perfect way for people who REALLY care to get around journalists and see or hear the news themselves. Except, let's face it, almost no one does, and especially not the media haters out there who bash away but often can't get off their couch and moan if the TV remote battery dies on 'em.

The best line:

Launching it yesterday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said: "Political junkies will love it. They'll now have one more way to drive their family and friends absolutely mad."

And then, of course, there is the required comment about political knowledge, otherwise why else would I mention this here in my high-quality blog ...

Australian News Channel and News Limited chairman John Hartigan stressed yesterday A-SPAN would not cost taxpayers a cent. "It will become a major platform to promote political knowledge, awareness and debate in our community," he said.

Yeah, and I'd like to think C-SPAN did the same thing here, except we know better. Hopefully the wonderful folks down under will have more success.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

What Nano We Know

Nanotechnolgy is cool stuff. Small, tiny stuff, but cool. A report on a study about what people know about nanotechnology suggests it's not just random but in part a function of religion. According to the report:
In the United States and a few European countries where religion plays a larger role in everyday life, notably Italy, Austria and Ireland, nanotechnology and its potential to alter living organisms or even inspire synthetic life is perceived as less morally acceptable. In more secular European societies, such as those in France and Germany, individuals are much less likely to view nanotechnology through the prism of religion and find it ethically suspect.

Interesting -- the U.S. public's knowledge about nanotechnology remains largely unchanged. The lead researcher blames a lack of news media interest. I'd add also no sexy, interesting, or fiction-based events from the nano world. No Harry Potter meets Nano, no Dolly-Nano cloning event, nothing that would suddenly deserve news media interest. The press doesn't suddenly pay attention to you just because you want it to. Gotta be a reason -- good, or bad.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Communicating Science

Reaching and engaging the public about science is about as important as it gets in communication, and Matthew Nisbet has a terrific online piece on just this topic. Highly recommended. It includes a portion of a manuscript draft he's working on with another author, Dietram Scheufele, on communicating science.

They outline a number of recommendations, including some of the obvious ones and one that really caught my eye -- the importance of satirical programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in reaching a young audience about science.

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Some of the best television interviewing, serious television interviewing, is done on those programs. Serious authors, serious thinkers, they appear and say more in five minutes with Colbert or Stewart than anyone says on CNN or anywhere else on TV outside of PBS. The following graph sums it up:

Other important media outlets for expanding audience reach include comedy news programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. Studies have documented the ability of these programs to engage younger, harder to reach audiences about political candidates and election campaigns, shaping their political attitudes and levels of political knowledge (Feldman, 2007; Feldman & Goldthwaite-Young, 2008). On science, a recent Pew (2008c) analysis finds that The Daily Show includes comparatively more attention to science and technology topics than the mainstream press and significantly more attention to climate change. These programs also generate buzz online with heavily-trafficked and forwarded clips on hot-button science topics such as evolution, genetics, climate change, or stem cell research. Additionally, both shows frequently feature scientists and science authors as interview guests, examples including Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Greene.

If science communication and science knowledge are your thing, read the full piece.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

America Gets an F?

The "civic literacy report" by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute gives America an "F" in what people know.

According to the site, which I've only started exploring, 71 percent of Americans failed a test on "America's heritage." Now that's a loaded term and I'll take some time, and another post, getting into what they asked. Instead I provide their key findings below:
  • Americans fail the test.
  • Americans agree colleges should teach "America's heritage."
  • College adds little to civic knowledge.
  • TV, especially TV news, dumbs down America.
  • College grads aren't all that smart either.
  • Elected officials score lower than regular, everyday people.

Again, I want to dig deeper into this one. I'm always suspicious when we talk about "heritage" and what it means, and whether it means the same thing to the people who put out this report that it does to others. Some of the sample questions are too esoteric to be considered "heritage" and to be honest have a certain ideological ring to them. No wonder people failed it.

btw, I got an 85, probably because I ran out of time and put "C" on some questions rather than think them through. Then again, I always was a "B" student.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

What People Know -- About a Movie

Offered with little comment, here's a link to an online quiz about that movie classic, A Christmas Story. Not sure what to think. I got only 5 out of 10 correct and I've seen that friggin movie a million times.

Creativity in Measurement

Measuring political knowledge can be easy. Which political party controls the House of Representatives? Who is the vice president? What candidate is against abortion? We can quibble with specific questions or wording, but agree that these more or less tap what we call political knowledge.

And we sometimes get creative.

Here are a few, using American National Elections Studies data:
  • Gives response other than "don't know" to questions asking how well a U.S. representative has done his or her job
  • Correctly identifies the incumbent in a district
  • Gives any kind of answer other than "don't know" on a feeling thermometer.
  • Remembers anything about an incumbent in a district

It's the feeling thermometer one that sometimes makes me wonder if we're not being a bit too creative. It's a standard question asking a respondent to rate a politician from 0 to 100 on how "warm" they feel. Answer a "100" and you'd have that person's baby, answer "0" and you'd eat them and their babies. But if you say "don't know" or do not provide an answer at all, it's often judged that you do not recognize the person and, thus, are less knowledgeable.

It's a bit of a stretch, but as I said above, sometimes we're forced to be creative when working with data in secondary analysis. If the items can be defended, if they all hang together, either in factor analysis or measured by Cronbach's Alpha, we're usually okay with the result.

I'm discussing this because I am about to plot out a study stretching from 2000 to 2008 on political knowledge that takes, best I can tell, a unique twist. As I progress and get closer to actual submission, I'll discuss it more openly, but right now the idea sounds cool. But as we all know, sometimes data get in the way of good theory.

Damn those data.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Political Knowledge, in History

Only tyrants, and the friends of arbitrary power, have ever taken umbrage at a turn for political knowledge, and political discourse, among even the lowest of people.

Miscellaneous Observations Relating to Education
by Joseph Priestley, 1778.

You gotta love Google, which can hunt old books for key terms, saving guys like me hours of countless time in the stacks hunting for old quotes to use in a blog. It's a great line because it works even today, over 200 years later. On the one hand, scholars and pundits will plead the case of "the lowest of people" while on the other hand criticize them for a lack of adequate political knowledge. It's an interesting problem. People of less education, working to get through the day, have other things to do than keep up with public affairs. They have little motivation, little ability, and quite frankly little reason to bother.

Education is the single most powerful predictor of what people know, though some have argued it's a lousy surrogate for cognitive ability and motivation. The greater your education, the more likely you have a stake in what's happening, the means to keep up with the news, and the ability to do so. Education works, though imperfectly. That's why tyrants often look at the educated classes, or educators, with suspicion.

Fortunately, "tyrant" doesn't really apply to western democracies, despite what the crazy talk radio people might suggest. And while everyone positions themselves as looking out for the little guy, the "lowest of people," the way some information and news today is served up, heavily laden with partisanship, the "little guy" has a hard time actually voting in a way that helps him or her.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Political Knowledge, in Africa

Much of our attention is on studies of what people know in western democracies. Hell, let's get to the point -- most studies are about political knowledge in America. You'll come across a few UK studies, maybe one from Europe or Australia or even South Korea, but little else.

Along comes this little 2008 gem from the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, which uses Afrobarometer data gathered in Mali to investigate the predictors of political knowledge.

The author, Erik Nisbet, notes some key differences in his findings from those seen in other studies. First off, newspaper reading has no direct effect on political knowledge, unlike in western democracies. This is probably due to lower literacy rates, a hypothesis supported by positive relationships seen between radio and TV news use and knowledge gain. There is an interaction effect for newspaper and education, suggesting that people with higher levels of schooling do get information from newspapers. This makes sense, and I've seen it elsewhere.

What's more interesting to me is the lack of a relationship between any form of media use and "democratic orientations" (supporting democratic ideals). There is also some fascinating discussion of the "knowledge gap" that is the main thrust of the piece.

I also found interesting the results on political participation. For people low in education, listening more and more to radio news did little or nothing to increase their political participation. Higher educated respondents, though, showed a remarkable increase as their radio use increased. Again I've seen similar stuff in my own data, but this suggests that anyone studying media consumption habits and political factors need to look hard at these interactions, which sometimes remain hidden in the data.