Thursday, April 30, 2009

Great Quotes

Yeah, this blog is What People Know. So what are some great lines that use our favorite blog-name phrase? My favorite so far:

The Almighty is not served by the accuracy of what people know, but by the exaltation of what they feel. Appleton's Journal, 1873.

Kinda neat. Gets at the tension between the secular and the religious, between knowledge and affect, and honestly from a religious perspective gets at the crux of an age-old argument between a religious transformation that is emotional (sudden) versus one that is more intellectual (over time). That's about as far as I want to swerve into that debate, though it's an old argument that I've always found fascinating, so much so that I even did some research on it once to examine political attitude differences between those with a sudden versus a longer born-again experience.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Swine Flu, ala H1N1

When a health crisis breaks, you can always count on the American public to be in the know. And a lot of other people around the world too.

Remember HIV/AIDS when it broke in the 1980s? All the misinformation?

Now I give you the swine flu. Oops, not swine flu. H1N1. As one story explains, the Obama folks want to make sure we call it by its scientific name. Not everyone is on board, and the power of a name apparently brings out the crazies around the world. Thus:
As has been noted by others, China, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Thailand, Ukraine, and the United Arab Emirates have all banned meat and pork products from some parts of the US, according to the office of US Trade Representative Ron Kirk.

The World Health Organization reiterated that one cannot contract the virus by eating pork, and pointed out that no pig had been found yet with this particular virus.

So let's call it H1N1 -- scientifically correct and trippingly tongue-twisting and no where near as much fun to pun with. As the U.S. ag secretary said:
"This really isn't swine flu. It's H1N1 virus," Vilsack said. "We want to say to consumers here and abroad that there is no risk to you, there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that there is any link between consuming pork, prepared pork products, and the H1N1 virus."

Can't wait for the first surveys that ask people what they know about the illness. I did see some interesting interviews in Mexico of regular people who said it came from Canada or the U.S. Never mind we've probably identified the earliest known victim of the disease, a 5-year old kid named Edgar who lives in a Mexican village.

The kooks will be out soon on this one. Tune into your favorite talk radio host for more misinformation.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Compulsory Voting and Political Knowledge

If we forced everyone to vote, made it compulsory, would that improve what people know and how engaged they are in the political process?

One study attempted to answer that question.

The authors found, to little surprise, that making voting compulsory will increase turnout. But as to political knowledge -- nope. No real effect.

The idea seems simple enough. If you have to vote, won't you pay attention more? Won't you at least learn a little bit more than usual when you have to pull a lever or push a button or whatever the hell it is you have to do, depending on your place of voting? Unfortunately this Canadian experiment finds no significant effect, and I see no reason why the results would not also extend to the U.S. or anywhere else.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Awful Events in Athens

The tragedy in Athens this weekend in which a UGA professor shot to death his wife and two other people shows just how much people turn to the news media when it matters. The local newspaper's web site was nearly impossible to reach because of all the traffic. People were picking up bits and pieces of news in any way they could: Internet, friends, smart phones, UGA's own emergency call system.

And on this major news day, the AJC -- my local metro paper -- ironically no longer delivered to Athens.

The shootings happened on Saturday and on Sunday the AJC was no longer being delivered to driveways across Clarke County, a huge void in finding out new information. Yes, you could go to the Net, but not everyone uses the Net. Ironic indeed that the day the AJC chose to stop delivery was on such a major news event.

A lot of the Grady family were either at the shooting, near the shooting when it happened, or know the people involved (Athens is not that big a town). Very sad this weekend, no doubt this week, and for a long time to come, especially for the kids who lost their mother and essentially lost their father as he continues to evade capture.

From a media perspective, this proves the vital nature of journalists, something people tend to forget until it really matters (not unlike cops, firefighters, and all the rest). It sucks that it takes an event like this to remind us that we need these people out there keeping an eye on the world and telling us what's happening.

For a compelling take from a personal and journalistic level, read colleague Michael Castengera's blog.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Does Media Exposure Mean Anything Today?

A couple of days ago I blogged about a new POQ study that found people overestimate in surveys how much they consume news media (in this instance, TV news). Young people in particular were found to significantly overestimate their use of TV news.

So what?

From a data analysis standpoint this causes all kinds of problems. Imagine you're studying how media exposure is related to political knowledge. Now imagine you're particularly interested in how young people use the news media to keep up with politics and public affairs. For young people, though, you find no significant relationship between their media consumption and what they know.

If indeed young people overestimate their media use, the typical relationship between news exposure and political knowledge, for them, may well disappear when actually it exists. In other words, their overestimation of news media suggests there ought to be a stronger relationship than actually exists because, well, they said they use the news media more than they really do. A usual positive association between news media exposure and political knowledge, for young people, may well turn negative. And that's bad news.

Can we correct for this statistically? I don't think so. Can we preface our news exposure questions to make it okay for people to admit they don't consume as much news as they might want to answer to make themselves sound better? Yup. Can we go to some measure other than mere exposure? Attention helps some, but it also rides on top of exposure and that may create similar problems.

Is time spent with the media even meaningful? In our ADD culture, skimming and grazing and getting bits and pieces of news from here and there, I'm not sure time spent with the media even works today. ANES tried some experimental media exposure items in the 2008 pre- and post-election surveys, but I'm saving that for another post on another day, but my overall sense is they're no better than the original ones. I'll do actual analysis of the two and report back.

Friday, April 24, 2009

One Word

What's the one word you'd use to describe Barack Obama?

The fine folks at Pew asked just this. Indeed, they give you three data points of this question (Sept. '08, February '09, and April '09). It makes for a fascinating peek into the public mind, this report. Scroll down a bit and you'll find find a table for "Obama in a Word."

The top word in September '08? Inexperienced. After that came Change, Intelligent, and Young. Of the 19 words generated, four are obviously negatives, the rest positives (Liberal could go either way, I suppose). In very last place: Socialist. We'll return to that in a moment.

By February '09 the top words are Intelligent, Change, and Honest. Only two are negatives, BUT Socialist has moved up the charts with a bullet, into a tie for #13!

In April '09 the top three are: Intelligent, Good, and Socialist. Interestingly, Liberal has moved into #4 in April after being near the bottom in February. Fascinating. Arrogant makes its first appearance in April, but the overall negatives are not so much changed.

What do I make of all this, especially given Obama's overall good favorability ratings? Clearly Limbaugh and Hannity and the other TV/radio commentators are having an impact on the public mind, cementing for at least some people out there what people know about Obama. These guys hammer the term Socialist again and again (never mind that real European style socialists look at this and kinda laugh, or consider misuse of copyright). Clearly it's working, at least for some folks. I'd have to download the data and dig much deeper to understand what kind of folks are using which labels -- and I might do just that this summer just for the hell of it.

It also suggests the partisan hammering may also be creating an early divide in the public mind about Obama, separating us yet again in the tired Red State/Blue State, you're-for-us-or-you're-against-us, thing. Limbaugh more or less said this the other day, that it's "us or them."

If you want to get theoretical on this and really understand the consequences of labeling, I recommend reading the literature on priming and chronically accessible constructs, found largely in the work on social and political cognition. I might touch on it this weekend if I have time and take Socialist to its likely consequences. I love getting all PhDweeb on this stuff.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Inflated News Audience

Interesting article in the just-off-the-press Public Opinion Quarterly by Markus Prior in which he finds significant overreporting of news exposure by the public. Yes, there's a duh moment here since we know people overestimate how often they vote, how often they attend religious services, and how good their gas mileage is (correlates with gas prices, the higher the gas prices, the better they lie about their mileage). They always overestimate their viewing of "highbrow" content too, like PBS, as compared to actual viewing of stuff like reruns of Gilligan's Island or Sponge Bob.

So the notion that people overestimate their news exposure, no real surprise. The degree of that overestimation, that's a surprise -- at least to me. Prior reports a range of a factor of three to a factor of eight, depending on demographics, on overreporting of news exposure. He also fusses about some survey wording that mass comm types have been bitching about for decades, especially those of us with a history in the actual news business, but that's beside the point here.

Who overreports the most? Young people. By far -- if you buy into his comparison of Nielsen people meters and data from the National Annenberg Election Survey. There's a bit of apples and oranges here, but not enough to challenge his basic finding that people overestimate their consumption of news on television. Families with kids and households with higher incomes, they also overestimate as compared to all viewers.

If you buy into this analysis it raises an interesting methodological question: should we correct statistically for estimates of news exposure? Should be reduce to some degree the news exposure estimates of younger versus older respondents? Prior suggests scholars "would do well to assess media effects with research designs that do not rely on self-reported exposure at all." Damned unlikely, especially if you rely on secondary analysis of archival data, and I'm not sure exactly how to get at this unless we preface our media exposure items in much the same way we do political knowledge questions in which we tell respondents it's okay, really it's okay, if you don't know this (or watch or read the news). Someone needs to test that approach and see if it really does deflate the overinflated numbers.

Study Specs
Markus Prior, "The immensely inflated news audience: Assessing bias in self-reported news exposure," Public Opinion Quarterly 73 (Spring 2009), 130-143.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Why I Sometimes Hate Local TV News

Lots of local TV news is okay. Not great, but okay. And then there's this crap. Follow the link, see for yourself.

Fictitious Knowledge

Most studies on political knowledge look at what people know about some issue or candidate. And then there are the ones I really love that look at what people know about stuff that doesn't even exist.

A new Political Studies piece has the great title: Fictitious Issues Revisited: Political Interest, Knowledge and the Generation of Nonattitudes.

Lemme explain.

We know lots of people answer survey questions even when they know nothing about a topic. Hell, they'll answer questions about completely fictitious issues, hence the "revisited" in the title above. In U.S. studies this generally occurs among the less educated, but this British study finds people with greater political interest also have more "pseudo-opinions," but political knowledge moderates this effect. In other words, if you're interested in politics you might even give an opinion on something that doesn't exist, but if you also know a lot about politics you'll recognize it as invented and not provide a false or fictitious opinion.

There's also a cool question-order effect here. Asking the political interest question before the fictitious item increases the effect. Fascinating. You've primed them to think their interested, and therefore they're more likely to provide an answer to even a fake issue. Self esteem, priming, lots of explanations here that come into play.

People tend to "anchor" these fictitious issues to existing ones to generate an opinion. That says a lot about what goes on inside our heads, how we organize our political world, seeking desperately for shortcuts or heuristics or ways to make sense of these issues when we face them. Unfortunately there is no media angle to all of this, at least in the study. I'd hope attention to news media would moderate this effect, but I wonder whether certain kinds of media attention might actually make it worse -- certain blogs, certain bloviating talking potato head commentators, that sort of thing. It's an interesting question.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Social Media

Everyone knows social media are the big thing -- Twitter, Facebook, and a host of others just around the corner and waiting impatiently for their turn to be mentioned by Stephen Colbert.

Adam Ostrow wrote recently about the fastest growing social media on Mashable (cool site). Yeah, Twitter up 2,500 percent in a year. Yeah, Facebook passes MySpace (thank god). Also watch out for Ning and Bebo and -- sigh -- LinkedIn. (I'm not bothering with live links. You can find 'em on your own by using such creative url guesses as

Okay, so the what people know connection? Too easy. As well as being places for social networking and meat markets for checking people out (admit it, job #1), people also pick up snippets of news and other information on these things. My Facebook feed usually includes links and embeds of news stories from around the web that "friends" in my network have posted. Given we tend to be grazers online, skimming a headline here, reading a couple of graphs there, the social network sites become merely another place where we can chomp and chew on a bit of cud news.

Does this lead to quality political knowledge? Nope, not even close, but in a world of talking political potato heads like Sean Hannity we can only hope people glean at little real news along the way.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Global Weather Change

Yes, the Earth is warming -- or rather, the weather is becoming wildly unpredictable but at key points it is warming, melting the polar icecap, and wrecking eventual havoc on coastal cities and whole nations that happen to lie just above sea level. And recent scientific studies that examine ice samples from thousands of years ago confirm that this event is unique, not cyclical, and can only be explained by gases we've created.

In an example of what people don't know -- I give you science.

A new study by Pew finds that somehow Christian evangelicals skipped science class. Thirty-one percent don't think the Earth is warming, despite what nearly every reputable scientist in the field says. I know Republicans hate science, and the stupid evolution debate has long proved that Christian conservatives hate science, but now you have to wonder if they also hate the Earth as well.

Dumb. Plain dumb. Inexplicably dumb. On a lot of topics I can present balance, but as a practicing Christian who attends church every Sunday I draw the line here with, well, the truly dumb, dumber, and dumbest. The graph shows who they are.

Pulitzers Announced Today

Today, yet again, I will not win a Pulitzer Prize.

The announcement is at 3 p.m. EST, this year's twist being that online news sites are also elgible "assuming primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories," and they "adhere to the highest journalistic principles.”

Translation: aggregators and Drudge need not apply.

E&P often makes a good guess as to the finalists, if you want to look ahead or at 3:01 p.m. check its accuracy.
And, of course, I won't win.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Of Limbaugh and Hannity and Obama

The Beck-Hannity-Limbaugh-Etc. group have been pounding Obama for a few weeks now. If they're not crying (Beck) they're calling Obama socialist (Hannity) or they're simply suggesting it may be the end of the world (Beck again, cleverly made fun of by Colbert here and then here, watch them in order. Hilarious).

That's fine and good. Let 'em talk, it's all part of the joy of American democracy that anyone with an asshole and an opinion can use both, though hopefully in public only the latter. But you'd think these guys would be having some kind of effect. Nope. Not yet. At least not in mainstream America.

The traditional president favorability ratings show a slight uptick in Obama's numbers. Latest, 69 percent Favorable, up from 68 (but within the margin of error, for the methodologically minded among you). Obama's high is 77 percent, back at inauguration. That's a ceiling effect and the prez rarely climbs back to that point except in dire, extraordinary times like a 9/11.

Given the economy, given two wars, given the nutjob in North Korea and the vehemence of the political right, you'd think these numbers would edge down more. I would've predicted low 60s, maybe even 50s.

Even Obama's "unfavorable" numbers have inched down, opposite of what you might expect given the ideological and partisan pounding he's taking. Post tea party numbers should drive Obama's favorability down, if there's any traction in a largely symbolic and somewhat under performing pr event. Maybe the traction will take a week or two to be seen, so we'll check again. But what people know right now seems to be a generally favorable impression of Obama, even in these ugly economic times. Remarkable.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Will the Kindle Save the News?

The Kindle 2 is that neat bit of lightweight tablet technology put out by Amazon that'll let you read books, magazines, and newspapers. So I have to wonder, will the Kindle (or readers like it) save the news?

The math is bad. It's expensive to collect the news (opinion is cheap, but news is expensive). The decoupling of advertising from news, especially for newspapers, is causing serious cuts in newsrooms across the country. Less news is getting reported, because let's face it, nearly all the news out there is generated by newspapers. In part people don't like reading paper, so you have to wonder if the Kindle can help. We're going to test just that soon as part of a study, so I'll report back, but if we can find a way to "iPod" the news then perhaps we can also salvage political knowledge.
I'm hopeful, but not convinced. A systematic study will tell us more than people blathering opinions on blogs (er, kinda like what I'm doing now).

Friday, April 17, 2009

Speaking of Birthdays

My post yesterday noted the 50th birthday of that great writing book, The Elements of Style. Well, today is another important birthday: Sponge Bob Square Pants is 10 years old!

Yeah, a silly show, but keep in mind that nine of the 20 top cable programs were ... da da dum ... episodes of Sponge Bob. Wow. And I challenge you to find a time when the show is not being shown.

Is this related to my blog? If I tried really hard and actually watched the show with some care, I might pull out a telling detail or plot device or show topic that somehow fits what people know, but let's face it -- more trouble than it's worth.

Quick Hit Friday
  • New Pew Center report details Internet use during the 2008 presidential campaign. The lede? Three-quarters of Net users went online to find campaign info.
  • The "direction of the country" poll question has reached 43 percent (in one poll), an improvement since early January (23 percent). Summary of such polls here.
  • New study in Political Psychology argues that political knowledge is important in understanding people's worldviews, such as egalitarianism or individualism. People with low political knowledge are found not to have coherent worldviews. The authors, Michaud, Carlisle, and Smith include the third author who wrote a very good book about political knowledge many years ago.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Happy 50th Birthday

Happy b'day to the best writing book ever made, Strunk & White's The Elements of Style. Not my favorite writing book (On Writing by Stephen King or Of Cunning and Craft by Peter Selgin are my favs), but easily the most important, followed by William Zinsser's On Writing Well.

First published in 1959, the classic book truly gets at what people know, at least as it teaches us the importance of clarity and grace in writing.

A perfect book? Not even close, but easily the most important book on writing every published, with Zinsser's excellent book not so far behind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Has Fox News Become Irrelevant?

Fox News continues to dominate CNN in the cable news sweepstakes. Fox hosts like Bill O'Reilly continue to kick ass in their time slot. Any lead CNN had during the election has eroded and we're back to the way things were before the Dems had a fascinating primary battle and ultimate victory.

But has Fox News become irrelevant?

Can you be irrelevant when you dominate the ratings? If today's "tea revolution" silliness is any indication, then perhaps the answer is yes.

Fox was all over this sorta-kinda story. This is invented news at its best. Astroturf. PR gone partisan. Fox looks desperate, kinda like the only guy at a party without a hookup -- the one who sits on the couch and pretends not to notice every other guy has a girl attached to his face. That's Fox, the lonely guy on the couch, muttering to himself.

In the world of what people know, there is a certain "preaching to the choir" feel to Hannity and all the rest of the Fox guys today. No real persuasion, because the relatively few folks who turned out for these things or who watched it on TV were already in the choir and singing the Limbaugh tune. That's cool. That's fine. I'm not making an ideological/partisan argument here, but rather that when it comes to the political debate, there is a sense that Fox has left the reservation -- especially when it comes to economic policy. The pros at this all give the Obama folks decent to good marks on their approach, while the Fox guys and gals sit alone on the couch, muttering, a silvery line of saliva slipping out of the corner of their mouth.

It's sad to watch.

Fox (and the Republicans, and there is a difference, though minor) need to get their act together and this madeup bs pr event is not the way to do it. The intellectual heft of the GOP seems to have been shoved aside in favor of something whiny and tinny and soooo 1990s. And for those who want good, solid political debate, the clashing of real ideas and the resulting compromises that make for good policy, this is bad news indeed. Earlier today I pointed to a blog about the polarization of elites and the sorting of Americans, and truly this crud today is a perfect example. A sad one at that.

A Polarized Public?

Is the American electorate politically polarized, or just the elites? These competing hypotheses have been analyzed, the data tortured, the essays and journal articles written, and still we don't know for sure. But we're getting close to a consensus, I believe. This does matter because a polarized public is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to compromise and legislation -- although there is some suggestion that the more polarized people are, the more they learn.

Anyway, this essay at Real Clear Politics gets at the topic and is worth the read. It gets into ideological and partisan "sorting" and all kinds of cool stuff. Highly recommended.

Near the end the author, Jay Cost, cites and agrees with a previous study that argues:
Contemporary American politics is probably best described as polarized on the elite level and increasingly well sorted in the electorate.

Yup. Which leads to all kinds of interesting media content (polarized since media tend to be at the elite level) and a depressed news audience (pissed at elite polarized content?). News networks play to the most polarized in their political coverage, in part because only the polarized are still paying attention to the news, but we get into a chicken-and-egg thing here that I want to explore more on a later post.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Education and Political Knowledge

A study in the latest Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media points out how important education is in understanding how different media help people learn about politics and public affairs. The study by Grabe, Kamhawi and Yegiyan examines how medium (TV, newspaper, web) interacts with education to predict different levels of learning.

No surprise, if you're immersed in this literature, that they found participants with greater education got more out of the print versions and those of lower education got more out of the TV version. Oddly they didn't hypothesize this, despite a recent consensus among scholars that TV best serves those who know little (or have less cognitive ability -- measured badly by education). That's a quibble about what otherwise is a pretty damn good study, especially in the part where they examined effects over time, something you don't often see.

The study is framed in the knowledge gap hypothesis and the tongue twisting LC3MP, which I first thought was a character from Star Wars but instead is Limited Capacity Model of Mediated Message Processing. Not sure what the hell the 3 is all about, but the model is basically a fancy mass comm restating of a history of social cognitive work on how much, or how little, we can process at one time.

So what's it all mean? First, education is just a surrogate for cognitive ability, and not a particularly good one. Indeed one study found an interviewer's estimation of a respondent's cognitive ability to be a better predictor of how well respondents did in a survey than their level of education. So education is a blunt instrument, but it does suggest the importance of TV news for those who don't know much, or spend a great deal following, public affairs. It helps close the gap that would otherwise exist if only print news existed. And it shows how important print is for those with greater cognitive ability, those who want more depth and context and actual news.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Major Called "Newspapers"

I'm gonna stray a bit off the what people know track.

I teach in the Department of Journalism, yet we don't have a major called journalism. Instead we have three majors: newspapers, magazines, and publication management. Anyone with a clue about the changing dynamics of the news business realizes having a major called newspapers makes about as much sense a business school having a major called convenience store management. We teach journalism, not newspapers, not magazines. We teach it for dead trees and online and all the rest. Journalism is a verb, something you do.

And yes, turf protection rears its ugly little head. No place is so petty as academe. We don't want to upset anyone by having a major called journalism in what coincidentally is a Department of Journalism. Extend this brilliant line of thought to its logical and deeply disturbed conclusion and you can complain about Department of English having a major called English -- because, after all, many of us use English. Dammit, how dare they claim it!

Let the brainiacs run free and you arrive at only one possible answer -- we change our name to the Department of Newspapers and Magazines.

So can I drag this vent, kicking and screaming, back to a what people know discussion? Probably not well, though of course our curriculum influences what skills students have when they enter the market, which influences how news is produced, which influences what people learn about their social and political world. So yeah, all of this petty crap does make an indirect difference.

Except not, because we still have a major called newspapers. We're roaring fearlessly into the 1950s.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


In what people know, one of those is how we perceive threat. News of course can increase the perception of threat or risk, hence the recent flubbed missile launch by North Korea. Back in 2006, eight-out-of-ten Americans saw North Korea as either an immediate or long-term threat to the U.S. About the same number see it that way in a recent survey.

All this despite North Korea's inability to feed its own people or get a missile's third stage to work properly. All this after a transparent pr campaign to convince it's own people that music is being piped from magical floating satellites in space, despite the fact North Korea can't actually seem to get a missile into space.

We're terrible at estimating risk, or threat. News stories create a top-of-the-head effect and we see the disease of the week or threat of the week as more likely to occur than it statistically is. Yeah, North Korea is nuts and is a threat, but I wonder now whether stories about the flubbed missile launch will reduce this perception. And whether that's a good idea.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How to Improve Political Knowledge

So I'm reading this study for my graduate seminar -- this week, health comm -- and the study tries to explain through evolutionary psychology why people use tanning beds or tan excessively even when they know it's bad for 'em.

The reason? A tan is an "aesthetic cue" for "the mating game."

The authors argue that it's not what you know that matters, at least for behaviors like tanning or reckless driving, it's how we've evolved to perceive certain behaviors. If they're tied to mating, we'll do them regardless. Young males see reckless driving as "sexual signaling."

Okay, yeah, fun and all that, but what's it got to do with political knowledge?

We gotta make political knowledge sexy, or at least find a way to integrate mating into what people know about politics and public affairs. Maybe no one can mate unless they pass a 10-item political knowledge test? Okay, that's not gonna happen, and to be honest I see no evolutionary advantage to being able to name your congressional representative or knowing which branch of government is charged with interpreting the constitution, so I guess this idea is a wash.

In other words, being a policy wonk ain't gonna get ya any action.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

People Know Economic Stuff

A new report by the Pew Research Center finds that Americans are "reasonably well-informed about a number of basic facts" on the economic mess. Over eight-out-of-ten know the government bailed out banks and others, and seven-in-ten correctly identified China as the country holding most of the U.S. debt.

I guess those billion or so stories on Issue #1 by the TV folks made a difference. Or maybe this burst of economic knowledge can be traced to the Jon Stewart-Jim Cramer dust-up.

Or -- and this is most likely -- people know more about this because it matters to their lives. Political knowledge is often abstract or at least it doesn't matter all that much in our day-to-day lives. Yeah, it's cool if you can name every member of Congress, but how useful is that? When jobs are being lost, when retirement looks damn near impossible, that's the stuff that matters, so it's no surprise people did well on this.

You can take the test too, though I gave you a couple of answers already. Give the quiz a try.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Obama is Still Muslim

Some urban myths refuse to die. A new Pew Center report confirms that the persistent rumor that Barack Obama is really Muslim, it's still out there, alive and well. Twelve percent believed him to be Muslim in October 2008, about 11 percent still think so. Among Republicans, 17 percent thought so in October and it's unchanged -- 17 percent in March 2009.

What's up with these people?

First, there's nothing wrong with being Muslim. It's like the old Seinfeld skit where a girl thinks Jerry and George are gay. We're not! they proclaim. "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Who clings to this misperception, and why? Oh my, this gets into some research I recently submitted to a journal, so I'm going to skate around this a bit. Lemme just say that based on a panel study from September to October, the folks who clung to this myth tended to be Republicans and Christian conservatives. Those who knew better than believe him to be Muslim were black, or better educated, or more politically interested. Watching or reading the news did little to moderate this misperception, which goes to show you the limits of the news media in correcting a misperception that fits all your predispositions.

It's messy stuff, but the Pew results support this as well. Among evangelicals, 19 percent believed Obama to be Muslim. That's higher than any subgroup, and damned telling.

Questions about a candidate's (or politician's religion) is not something we often ask. Joe Lieberman being a Jew was a major story in 2000. Many people misidentified George W. Bush's religious affiliation (he's Methodist, not Baptist). Being religious makes you a little better at correctly identifying a candidate's religious affiliation, but not a lot, in part because religiosity is mostly unrelated to political knowledge or even negative.

Christian conservatives want to believe Obama is something other than Christian. Along comes this urban myth, and there ya go -- misperception.