Wednesday, July 30, 2008

It's not just the U.S.

About one out of three British kids between ages 4 and 10 think Winston Churchill was the first man to walk on the moon, according to a survey reported here. A quarter of Brit teens think Churchill didn't exist at all.

Strangely, this makes me feel better, in that it is not U.S. kids.

And so it goes.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Two New Books

A couple of new books this summer tell the same story: the American public, when it comes to politics, ain't all that smart.

The first is Just How Stupid Are We by Rick Shenkman, a sexy enough title to earn him an appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Funny appearance. But his book is more about "American politics" being stupid than some disappointment in the political knowledge of the general public. And yet, he tells Stewart:

"If only two out of five Americans know that we have three branches of government and can name them, we've got a problem."

There is an excellent Washington Post article on one a more serious book, The American Voter Revisited. Unfortunately for the authors, the lack-of-sexiness title will not earn any of them a shot at The Daily Show.

Work on that title, guys.

But there is a reason for the title in that it's a return to one of the most influential books in political science history, The American Voter of 1960. The new and improved book finds that the American public is not all that improved, at least in terms of political reasoning and knowledge. "You could get depressed," one of the authors told the Post's Libby Copeland. Most Americans in the last two presidential elections have few issues in mind, are only vaguely tied to a party or candidate, and often cannot elaborate their reasons behind supporting one suit over another.

In fairness, there is a smaller set of scholars who argue the public is quite well informed, thank you very much, just not as well as some political scientists would like, or at least not on the issues that they think are so vital. The "high priests of culture," as scholar Samuel L. Popkin says in the article, think in ways differently than the general public. They process a lot of info and know more than we give them credit for, he says.

People simply have more important stuff to do than keep up with the political details that so draw news junkies. Or, as Stewart put it to Shenkman: "We have a lawn to mow."

The timing of the books, on the eve of yet another election, is not coincidence. Both timed it well. One just has a sexier title.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Religion, Take Three

The fine folks at Fox asked the following survey question:

Some people believe Barack Obama, despite his professed Christianity, is secretly a Muslim. Others say that is just a rumor and Obama really is a Christian as he says, and point out he’s attended a Christian church for years. What do you believe -- is Obama a Muslim or a Christian? Muslim Christian (Other) (Don’t know)

Now this, conducted July 22-23, comes dangerously to being a push poll. It suggests something more than it asks something. By the way, among Republican respondents, 20% say he's a closet Muslim (5% Dems, 7% Indies).

And so it goes.

What we don't have are crosstabulations of "he's a Muslim" with factors other than political party identification. Is it just the know-nothings (who can be found in both parties) who think he's a Muslim, or informed folks truly skeptical of Obama's shifting sands on the issues? Are they hardcore McCain people? And just how strongly do they identify with the GOP or Democratic Party? That's unclear in the results, because a strong partisan acts and believes in very different ways than a "soft" partisan.

The pdf of the survey is here for those curious enough to read the, often mundane, results. The Obama/Muslim question is #27 and is followed by one about McCain being a prisoner of war but doesn't suggest any "negative" aspects in that question. Interesting in and of itself. And telling.

Monday, July 21, 2008

What Religion, Part II

Just stumbled across an Associated Press-Yahoo poll that asks more or less the same religion question I blogged about below. Respondents were asked, what's the religion of various candidates?

Hillary Clinton: 33% have her as Protestant, 8% as Catholic, 2% as "some other," 3% say "none," and just over half don't have a clue.

Barack Obama: 27% have him as Protestant, 2% identify him as Catholic, 1% as Mormon (that's fascinating), 15% as Muslim, 8% as "some other religion," 1% as no religion and the rest, nearly half, don't know.

So one poll has 12% saying Obama is a Muslim, the other has 15%. More or less in the margin of error, suggesting (1) people want to believe he's Muslim for partisan reasons, or (2) his name confuses them and they offer Muslim as a likely response, or (3) they don't attend to the news, or (4) they're just plain suspicious of this guy who came, more or less, out of nowhere to capture the Democratic nomination, or (5) they're just plain dumb.

In the story, which doesn't offer a lot of detail, there's an interesting intereview with a respondent:

Randi Estes, a Democrat from Ada, Okla., said she prefers Clinton but feels Obama is likely to win the nomination. "He's gotten very strong media coverage, and Bill Clinton's not helping her a bit," said Estes, 36, who has four children under the age of 6.

Speaking of Obama, she said, "I have a sense he's a Muslim."

It's that sense I find fascinating, and I suspect the Obama people may find troubling. But they can't find it too troubling, because that suggests there's something wrong with being Muslim (which there isn't). It's an interesting problem. As I like to say to my department chair when he wants to discuss some problem: "Good luck with that."

Friday, July 18, 2008

What Religion is that Guy?

The folks at the Pew Center asked in a recent survey a simple question: Do you happen to know what Barack Obama's religion is?

Good timing, given The New Yorker magazine cover (see below). So how'd we do? As if you had to ask.

Despite recurrent media attention to the issue -- including extensive coverage of his association with the controversial Protestant cleric, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- the incorrect perception that the Democratic presidential candidate adheres to the Muslim faith or to another non-Christian faith has remained remarkably constant over the course of the 2008 election campaign.

Twelve percent of respondents say Obama's a Muslim, despite that fact he's not -- he's Christian. One percent have his as Jewish, which is kinda interesting and strange and not altogether understandable. But hey, what the heck. Some 25 percent don't know and 3 percent refused to answer. Of the "don't know" types, 10 percent said they've heard lots of different things. That's the Muslim whisper effect, hidden in the data, and is interesting as well.

I published a piece some time back that looked as the ability to identify the religions of four candidates (Gore and Lieberman, Bush and Cheney). Those who shared a religion with that person were more accurate. Everyone could identify Lieberman's religion, very vew could correctly place Cheney. And lots of Baptists said Bush was Baptist when, instead, he's Methodist (though a flavor that looks awfully like Southern Baptist, so understandable).

Overall, this fuzzy sense of Obama's religion may play a role later. You can be sure it'll come up as a question in the debates, which I'm sure he'll welcome, but I doubt his answer, no matter how sincere, will solve nothing. He'll do the "I'm not a Muslim, not that there's anything wrong with that!" approach that serves him well among some, but does nothing with a few crazies out there.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Obama and The New Yorker

I don't want to add to the silly debate over the (now infamous) New Yorker cover except to say it's an interesting case of what people know, or the fear of what people know.

Some don't like it, some do. Many wonder whether those outside New York, the unsophisticated masses, will get it. E&P has a good column touching both sides. So does the WPost. There are tons of stuff out there, from bloggers to other, and I see no need for a comprehensive list of chattering about magazine covers.

What do I think? Will Joe Sixpack glance at the cover as he's heading for the biker magazines and think, "Oh yeah, knew the guy was a Muslim"?

Nope, of course not. Even having this discussion elevates that kind of thinking higher than it deserves. It's satire. Let's move on.

And yes, it was stoopid of the Obama camp to respond as well.

It's satire. Let's move on.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Is the American public stupid?

Rick Shenkman discusses his news book Just How Stupid Are We? with Jon Stewart. Worth the time. Also an article by him is here.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Old Two-Step Flow

Sounds like a dance, the old two-step flow. You put your left foot in, you take your left foot out ... and so on and so on. But I was thinking the other day about the shrinking news audience, especially a more partisan news audience, and I came to wonder whether the old two-step flow and opinion leaders, concepts from the early days of mass comm research, haven't become even more important.

Briefly, the concepts have to do with interpersonal communication, of opinion leaders passing information down to others. The media inform some, who in turn inform others. Water cooler chatter. Back fence talk. Elevator conversation material. All that stuff. With a mass audience this seems less important, but now with a highly fragmented audience with relatively few opting for news versus entertainment, it seems to me we'll see more reliance on what people about the news since many don't (or won't) consume it.

You know the routine, those people who say "I heard it on TV" or "I read it online somewhere" and then repeate a badly remembered factoid, which may or may not be true, but it becomes true to them because not only do they vaguely remember it, but they have repeated it to someone else. And then those people, who don't consume news themselves, are unlikely to have that factoid challenged because they don't attend to the news. They accept it, maybe pass it on to others.

Scary world.

Any solution? Not much of one, I'm afraid. A lot of people have fled the news for entertainment, for quality programming like Dancing with the Stars. What they "hear" from others will inform their opinions, their votes.

Yup. Scary world.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Does Knowledge Stand Alone?

Pardon my PhDweeb moment as I go theoretical and methodological. I want to discuss (briefly) whether political knowledge is a worthy concept standing alone or whether it should be folded into some overall concept.

Candidates include expertise and sophistication and awareness, all which have some history. Let's pluck out sophistication, just for the sake of argument. What makes someone sophisticated in a realm such as, say, politics? Obviously knowing stuff about the topic, thus we get knowledge, but also we need to get more theoretical. We need motivation and ability, for example.

Political interest probably deserves mention. It suggests motivation. We usually measure this with a single item that asks if a respondent cares about or is following politics or a campaign or whatever it is we're studying. High in this, people have the motivation to keep up with politics. Doesn't mean they have the ability to comprehend, so with that we might add education, which both gives one the motivation to keep up (you see the stakes and how they affect you) and the ability to do so (literacy, background info, etc.).

Okay, then there's knowledge. This suggests the ability to translate what one has been exposed to into long-term memory, and it suggests one can access that information on that domain. Knowing stuff matters.

And finally we have media use. This is the channel that delivers the information, and exposure to it says something about motivation (I keep up, therefore I must care) and potential ability (I hear/read about politics, therefore do I actually process the info?). Knowledge is the end result of media use, then.

So do we gain anything by studying sophistication rather than the individual factors that might be thought of as factors in a multidimensional variable? I dunno. I believe we lose something by lumping it together in a single variable, in part because not all media exposure is the same (CNN vs Fox vs Print, etc.), in part because not all knowledge is the same. Textbook versus civics versus current versus recall versus recognition, all these matter when studying what people know, and how they know it.

My gut feeling is that sophistication is a lot of work to fold in a lot of variables and losing some rich data in the process. This might have worked in a more homogeneous media environment, but I'm not sure it works today in our fragmented marketplace.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

CNN vs Fox vs The World

As I mentioned in an earlier post some time back, CNN's recent ratings success had more to do with the Democratic nomination battle and network audience demographics than it did with anything they were doing right.

Today in the AJC, an article noting that cable news viewership has significantly declined (hey, it's summer! there's beer to drink!), including CNN as it drops back to its usual 2nd place behind Fox News.

Here's part of the article that I believe deserves comment:

"I think (Sen. Barack) Obama's nomination and his winning the primaries has changed things dramatically for cable, and I think that's one of the reasons why Fox hasn't been doing as well," said Paul Levinson, chairman of Fordham University's communication and media studies department. "People who support Obama don't watch Fox much."

Absolutely. Dems tend to watch CNN more than Fox and they were caught up in the race between Obama and Clinton. And then there's this bit of nobraindom:

Richard White, a spokesman for Fox News, disagreed. Noting Fox regained the lead in a key prime-time demographic, White said, "It's surprising that a chairman of a communications and media department could be so out of touch and ill-informed."

PR flaks need to learn when to shut up, especially when they (1) can't read data and (2) have no common sense and (3) just because they're PR people and should shut up anyway, especially on topics like this. I know PR guys are paid to spew crap like this but come on, grow a conscience.

So CNN slips back into second place. As I said it would, months ago when they were bragging about moving ahead of Fox. I love being right, mainly because it happens so rarely.