Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Paying for Knowledge

It's nice to see someone else working my territory, examining research on political knowledge.  Here's a blog entry that looks at a study I also examined some time back.  The actual article is here, which looks at how paying someone motivates them to do better on tests of political knowledge.  The conclusion of the article is simple: "As a result, existing knowledge measures likely underestimate people’s capacities for informed decision making."

What Women Know

I've blogged before about research that attempts to explain why women consistently do less well on tests of political knowledge than men. There's a new study in Political Behavior that takes another stab at the question.  This one finds much of the difference can be explained in differences between men and women in the strongest predictors of political knowledge, such as education.

Beyond that, the author also looks at belonging to groups and how differences might emerge between men and women.  It's kinda neat and something I've never given any thought to.  The author notes:
Perhaps the more intriguing finding is that group membership affects the acquisition of political knowledge differently for men and women. Women clearly benefit from belonging to groups in ways that men do not. This suggests there are important, gender-based, differences in the effects of social setting and environment on civic engagement.
I also found it interesting that buried in a table is a significant effect on number of children, depending on the sex of the respondent.  For women, more children equals a lower political knowledge score.  For men, there is no statistically significant relationship.  It's hardly surprising given who does the heavy lifting in the home, especially with the kids, but I'd never seen that one before in an analysis.  Fun area to explore.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Sean Hannity Drinking Game

Want a good drinking game?  Listen to Sean Hannity's radio show every afternoon and suck down a drink every time he says "specificity."

As in: "Barack Obama wants to take candy from a baby and give it to some other, undeserving baby.  We'll get into this in more specificity on the next hour."

Won't take long for you to get a buzz.

We all have words we unconsciously overuse.  Mine is "booger."  I hear Hannity use "specificity" a lot, so it's a good option, kinda like drinking every time someone said "Hi Bob" on the old Bob Newhart Show.

Of course liberals who listen to Hannity don't need a reason to drink heavily.  And conservatives would never play such a game -- they'd be surrendering local control of their consumption.  That leaves moderates and alcoholics, who may be the same people in these partisan times.

So tune in that favorite AM radio station, get your favorite adult beverage, and get ready to listen and drink.


Oh, and I just found a better Hannity drinking game here.

Social Media Attract the Affluent and Urban

The headline says it all.  Story here.  Facebookers, in particular, tend to be "largely upscale."  So will we have an emerging Social Media Gap to rival the old Knowledge Gap?  Or maybe the Digital Divide?

Stewart vs. Colbert

There is an emerging bit of scholarly work that suggests those two popular comedy faux news programs -- Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert's The Colbert Report -- have very different effects on their audiences.

Stewart's show is more straightforward.  He slams Republicans, occasionally Democrats, but basically you know where's coming from. Colbert is more sneaky.  He plays a Republican blowhard to make fun of Republicans and blowhards.  But his approach confuses some.  In other words, he nudges people to like Republicans and those he satirizes, according to one study.

Why mention this?  In part the issue is methodological.  You wouldn't want to measure exposure to the two programs and then collapse this into a single index called Exposure to Late Night Comedy.  There are enough differences, at least suggested in some published studies or a few under consideration at journals, that combining the two might, if not cancel one another out, create measurement error issues.  And I think I broke a personal record for the number of commas in a single sentence.  Apologies.

Lots of people mention such programs as a source of their news and information, as places that influence what people know.  If true, we must be careful in how we take these questions and combine them into a single variable.  In fact, best I can tell from some early data, this would be a mistake.

What dependent variables would this most likely influence?  Probably not knowledge so much as attitudinal items, such as like/dislike of candidates or even attitudes about major institutions such as Congress or the Press.  I don't see it influencing trust in government but it might influence internal or external efficacy.  In general, we need to carefully examine differences between these two programs on key criterion variables before simply combining them in a single index.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Wisdom of the Twitter Crowd

There was a 2004 book partially entitled The Wisdom of the Crowds that argued the collective often makes better calls than the individual.  I'd call it the Borg Hypothesis if for no other reason than to prove I'm a Star Trek geek.

We've seen people using Twitter to tap into the wisdom of the crowds.

Thanks to PR and social media guru/goddess Karen Russell, I can point to this post, which examines the response to the new The Jay Leno Show via Twitter.  It's a neat idea and you can read the text of the full study that compares offline and online responses to Leno.

We're going to see a lot more of this sort of thing, using Twitter or other social media to understand the public's response to, or chattering about, some issue, program, or person.  It's a poor man's version of the Nielsen's, but more than that.  It's gives us interesting comparisons with the geeky Twitter types (or Facebook, or whatever the tech-flavor-of-the-month happens to be) and real live people, a sample of the general population. 

Methodologically interesting, and even more so when we start to see what these two samples say about some topic begin to merge.  That's not gonna happen soon.  People who examine polls done by the traditional method of landline phones and cell phones aren't seeing this quite yet, but they will.  Twitter and other social media?  Very different.

Best use?  To see something as a trend before it truly emerges.  Google does this with predicting the flu.  Searches signal something deeper, in this case the flu, so why can't Twitter and other social media signal something in advance of more standard, traditional methods?  I'm thinking yes, that's where it will be most useful.

Friday, September 25, 2009

TV Size and Knowledge

Says a PBS guy: "There’s a correlation: The bigger TV you have, the dumber you are. Smart people have TVs, often—but not very big ones."  And yes, I have a relatively small, absolutely crappy, television.  So I'm loving this correlation.

Civic Health in Hard Times

A new report is out, called Civic Health in Hard Times.  From the summary:
The survey’s results reflect the hard choices Americans have made during the downturn, with 72 percent of respondents saying they have cut back on time engaged in civic participation, which includes time spent volunteering, participating in groups or performing other civic activities in their communities. Public perception supports this finding, as 66 percent of Americans say they feel other people are responding to the current economic downturn by looking out for themselves, with only 19 percent saying people around them are responding to the recession by helping each other more.
Translation: When the economy goes bad people spend less -- both in money, and in their time.

Non-profits have already watched this decline at a time their own funds have disappeared into risky investments.  And now people are giving less, of their time.  People under stress find it difficult to do the things they used to do, at a time when it's probably even more important that they do it.  Human nature in action.

Any loss in engagement will also influence something like knowledge.  The two are often intertwined (but not always, as my post the other day elaborated on when talking about political content from Facebook).

I'd love a more detailed breakdown of the folks who reported helping more because of the recession versus those who pulled back.  Are there some consistencies?  This gets fun because it turns out conservatives tend to give more than liberals, at least in money, to non-profits and the like.  This is mostly fueled by church giving, but it probably goes deeper than that, so I'd love to see a more detailed breakdown.

A non-pdf of the report here, a full pdf of the report here.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Knowing Exercise

Only about a third of Americans can identify that basic recommendation that we get 30 minutes or more of physical activity every day, according to a new study.  And fewer than half meet the recommendations.  While the analysis is new, the data are from 2005.  But it gets at the heart of what people know -- in this case, what they know about exercise.

Facebook and Political Engagement

I stumbled across this post that pointed me to this fascinating paper about Facebook and political engagement, including political knowledge, which was presented at APSA

Participation in online groups, according to the authors, "strongly predicts offline political participation by engaging members online." That's the good news.  The bad?  Facebook political discussions are unrelated to actual knowledge.

These results, the authors write, are "bitter-sweet."  While it's good that Facebook fosters engagement, the lack of improved knowledge is troubling.  Their content analysis of Facebook content provides a clue. 
The information content and quality of most wall posts were found to be very poor, generally lacking support for their claims, incoherent, or simply opinionated. In other words, group members are exposed to little new or well-articulated information about the political causes around which these groups form. The information is more likely to be reinforcing and therefore mobilizing, but not enlightening and therefore educational.
This is bad news for those of us hoping to see social media step up and be more than a way to waste one's time.  Engaging an uninformed public?  A next step, of course, would be to see whether the engagement prompted by Facebook use leads to seeking out information elsewhere.  The results here suggest not.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Trusting the Media, or Not

A Study released today has Fox News and the most trusted, and least trusted, of television news organizations.

And here's a fun bit:
While strong majorities of survey respondents (73.4%) believed the news media (newspapers, radio, TV and the internet) should provide equal time and space for multiple sides of issues, a similar percentage (70.9%) said the same media should be free from government involvement and allow the market to determine programming demand.

You can read the rest yourself.  The methodology appears sound, the results -- a bit distressing.  Then again, this is nation that adores crap like Dancing with American Idol or whatever the hell it's called, so pfffft.

Wednesday Stuff

For the price of a single visit, multiple bits of information below that -- more or less -- can be related to what people know.
  • Accountability journalism is at risk, says speaker at Harvard's Shorenstein Center.  One consequence is that many smaller towns risk sinking "into casual endemic civic corruption" as public officials are no longer held accountable by journalists.
  • Thursday is National Punctuation Day, so says the Chicago Trib in this piece.  I. Am. Excited.   And I should probably include some "unnecessary quotations."
  • Newspapers don't want a bailout.  In related news, journalism schools still popular.  Go figure.
  • Brilliant piece in The Atlantic about how some stories show up on TV at the same time, fed by political spindoctors and hucksters and hacks.  I read it in the paper version of the mag, which I get at home, making me morally superior to all who read it online. Or at least help paying the bills for good journalism.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Obama Don't Like Old People?

I was picking my kids up at school yesterday afternoon and listening to Sean Hannity on his talk radio show discuss the H1N1 (swine flu).  His message?  Obama is out to kill old people.  Why?  That's not clear, but because the priority list for swine flu vaccinations has older Americans at the end of the line, not the beginning, it's all part of some evil plot to kill off old people.  Evidence, it seems, of death panels.

What Hannity failed to include is people born before 1957 have some natural immunity to the swine flu (dammit, I was born in '58).  He also conveniently failed to mention that younger people are more susceptible to the symptoms of this version of the flu than are older people (which he incorrectly suggested was the same as the regular seasonal flu -- science geek, he's not).

In other words, what people know from listening to Hannity's radio show is Obama Hates Old People.

This could be a rap song, kinda like George Bush Don't Like Black People.  Hannity was misleading (at best) and intellectually dishonest (without a doubt).  And speaking of rap and talk radio, a fascinating piece here that compares one to the other.  Wish I'd written it because it's an interesting analogy.  Lots in common that I'd never thought of before -- and I do research on talk radio.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Rats vs Health Care

Sigh.  The top blog story of last week?  Health care, you might think.  "You Lie!" screamed by some obnoxious congressman in need of a good spanking?

Nope.  A giant rat.

The graphic to the right says it all, from the Pew Center's count of the blogosphere (above) and the evil mainstream press (below).  Go here for the report.

Again, sigh.  Blogs are gonna replace news?  Can culture death be far behind?

Even better, go further and find the Twitter Makes You Dumber controversy, which I (like a jillion others) blogged about last week. 

I now feel a member of the blogosphere, no doubt losing a precious few IQ points along the way.  I really can't spare 'em.

Public Opinion and Terrorism

A fascinating piece that links public opinion and terrorism.  According to the authors: "We found a greater incidence of international terrorism when people of one country disapprove of the leadership of another country."  They controlled for several confounding factors in a neat analysis of paired comparisons.

Exercise Makes You Smarter

I was reading a NYTimes Magazine article this weekend and was struck by an experiment (abstract available here) that compared running, lifting weights, and sitting quietly and how well college students did on a memory task.  Running led to better memory than either of the other two.  According to the abstract:
These data extend the current knowledge base by indicating that acute exercise-induced changes in cognition are disproportionately related to executive control and may be specific to the aerobic exercise domain.
Translated: aerobic exercises such as running apparently do something to the brain to make it work better.

How I can tie this to political knowledge, I'm not sure.  It's not like we can make people do jumping jacks while watching or reading the news, but it might be interesting to include in a survey items that attempt to tap a respondent's aerobic activities.  My guess is, any difference or effect here is lost in the maze of other potential variables that influence political knowledge -- which is usually more long-term memory, than this example.  Still cool. 

Gotta run!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Women in Social Media

New survey out about social media and women.  PDF is here.  Busy Saturday, so may try to read it later and comment.

Civics Knowledge -- No Longer A Priority?

Long piece in The Nation on the state of civics knowledge today in schools, etc., and the decline of civics as a priority.  Including this line:
If you believe that the success of our participatory democracy is directly related to how it prepares its youngest citizens, then you must worry that our democracy is in sorry shape. 

Yup, gotta agree.  But let's face it, No Child Left Untested does not include civics, so why bother?  Pass me the math book, please, gotta do a standardized test tomorrow, and next week, and the week after that ...

And I'll end with this from the article (which I encourage you to read in full):
Our young people's civic ignorance is a long-term threat. The decision to vote can be traced to our civic knowledge. "Nonvoting results from a lack of knowledge about what government is doing and where parties and candidates stand, not from a knowledgeable rejection of government or parties or a lack of trust in government," write Samuel Popkin and Michael Dimock. That was George Washington's point all along: active citizens are integral to democracy, and schools are the training grounds for those citizens.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ghostwriting the Meds

I need a corporate ghostwriter for my academic work.

That seems to be what's happening in medical journals, according to today's New York Times story, and there's a growing backlash among lawmakers and journal editors.  Why?  According to the Times lede:
The scientific integrity of medical research has been clouded in recent years by articles that were drafted by drug company-sponsored ghostwriters and then passed off as the work of independent academic authors.
That says it all.

We used to trust peer-reviewed journals, especially the big medical journals, to get it right.  But of late, the big pharmaceutical/medical companies are cooking the data.  Never trusted them, but I did trust university medical researchers.  Apparently that trust was misplaced too.

How this affects what people know is obvious.  Much of what we learn about medical breakthroughs, testing, new products, new drugs, comes through a news media filter from the academic journals.  There's something magical about the New England Journal of Medicine -- so magical, it seems, that corporations and sleazy academics team up to have corporate hacks ghostwrite academic research.

Which, apparently, I need.  Get more publications that way, or at least grant money.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oklahoma -- Where History ... Ends?

Three-out-of-four Oklahoma high school students can't name the first president of the United States.


According to this story, the survey of a thousand students found that 23 percent correctly named the first prez.  Only 10 percent knew how many justices sit on the Supreme Court.  But there's good news, geography fans.  Sixty-one percent knew which ocean sits off the East Coast.

I wonder how many can correctly name the starting Sooner quarterback? 

In Praise of ... Glenn Beck?

I come to praise Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Lou Dobbs, and all the other talkmeiseters out there in TV and radio land.

As much as it pains me to say, mainstream journalists need to pay closer attention to these guys. 

Yeah, they're a bit nutty, a bit fruity, and if I could come up with some other food-based description I'd use it too.  We all know that.  But they, and the minor league talkers, have come up with what eventually came to be major stories.

  • Van Jones, the environmental adviser, resigned.  Journalists acted a bit surprised by this, but if they'd been listening to talk radio they would have seen this coming a long time ago and would have covered the story sooner.
  • ACORN, that wacky group of whatever the hell they are, got caught doing and saying stupid things. Hannity in particular has been all over these guys.  There's embarrassing video out there and the feds have responded by slowly but clearly cutting ties to the group (Census Bureau, the latest I suppose).
  • Czars.  Can we ever have enough czars?  Apparently not the president, and the talkers have been pissing and moaning about this for a while now.  And guess what?  CNN this morning, a story about how many czars there are in the Administration and congressional concerns about who they answer to, how they are vetted.  Listen to the crazy talk people, CNN, and you would have had this story sooner.
Some guys debated online the other day whether there should be a hate beat, and someone answered that nearly every beat these days seems to be a hate beat.  Assign someone to listen to the semi-crazed talk radio/tv folks and you'll get a lot of that -- plain hate, dressed up as saving America.  But there's good news stuff in all that bloviating.  Ya just gotta wade through hours of shit to find the gems and help people understand what's going on in the political world.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Where the Wacky Are -- New Jersey

One out of five voters in New Jersey are sure Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.  Also, about one-out-of-five thinks George W. Bush had advance knowledge of 9/11.

I suspect these are different people -- loons on the left, and wackos on the right.

It's possible New Jersey is the capital of conspiracy theorists and it's the same people who believe both silly myths, but I'm more willing to suspect that roughly 40 percent of New Jersey voters are simply nuts.

Press release on the survey here.  Scoll below the release to find actual numbers.

There is good news.  Only 8 percent think Obama is the Antichrist.  But 13 percent aren't sure.

What People . . . Want
In this Case, as in House

Americans 55 years old and up want -- a house.  But not just any old house.  They want a single-story house in the burbs, with all the accumulated gizmos and stuff that makes middle class American so special, at least according to this report based on a survey by the National Association of Home Builders.

I'm not 55 yet, but we've got the one-story house covered.  Nothing like being ahead of the trend.

Here's a finding that kinda caught my eye:
"While conventional wisdom dictates that older buyers would be looking to downsize, most consumers say they'd like their next home to be the same size as their current one."
 So much for conventional wisdom, in this case, what people know, or thought they knew, about people's preferences for homes.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Geographic Knowledge

This is kinda fun and challenging, a test of your geographic knowledge.  Click on United States - State Capitals, for example, and you get this.  I did okay on the U.S. capitals, nailed most of the European countries, but I absolutely sucked elsewhere.  There are some other sites like this, but just happened to play with this one today.  Too bad there's no scoring breakdown.

Press Accuracy Hits New Low

On my drive home yesterday I tuned in, as I often do, to Sean Hannity's radio show.  The man was gloating.  Why?  The Pew Center report released this week says the public perception of news media accuracy has hit an all-time low (a graphic from the report to the right).

Hannity went off on one of his screeds, talking about "the media" while never pointing out that he's more or less a media machine himself between his Fox News Channel and radio show and books and concerts to save America from its duly elected president. 

But enough about Hannity.  Back to the report.

There's a lot here to read with anguish -- if you like democracy, that is.  But read the results a certain way and you see the growing partisan nature of the news audience.  The perception of inaccuracy or bias is driven largely by those who feel mostly strongly from the left or right, by Dems or GOPers.  That's heartening, in a way, but even among independents there is a steady decline in the perception of the press. 


Journalism, like science, has taken a beating by conservatives who have never realized that a lack of a conservative bias does not necessarily mean a liberal bias.  This pounding has taken its toll.  And anyone who thinks this is good for democracy isn't paying a helluva lot of attention to what makes a democracy work. 

Monday, September 14, 2009

News Credibility

New Pew Center numbers out on credibility of the news media.  The report looks at numbers from 1985 to 2009.  I'll comment further when I have time to dig into the data.

Fifty Things the Internet Is Killing

A great list here of the 50 things the Internet is killing -- several of them knowledge related and thus providing blog fodder for a Monday morning.  Among those items to be snuffed by the Net, some of interest here are:
  • The art of polite disagreement (negative affect influences learning)
  • Memory (kinda obvious, it's importance here)
  • Authoritative reference works (who needs serious references?)
  • Respect for doctors and other professionals (journalists too?)
  • Geographical knowledge (again, obvious here)
  • Mainstream media (ditto)
You can read the story to get an explanation for all of these.  Some are obvious, like mainstream media, some less so -- like memory.  In the article they make the case for something I've blogged about before, the shift from what people know to what people can find. It's an important distinction.

Fun list, and the great thing about lists is they're even more fun to argue about.  See this story, which quotes me about why we love lists (I blame God and Moses, mostly, followed by David Letterman).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

What People Know -- About Their Teeth?

Offered with little comment on a Sunday afternoon, a survey reported here that looks at what people know about their teeth and why it matters.  Here's a factoid from the survey that surprised me: "More than a third of the survey respondents (36 percent) admit their child brushes his or her teeth less than once a day."  

Obama's Favorability -- Slip Sliding Away

Obama's favorability is slip sliding away, at least according to recent Pew Center numbers.  The neat thing about this page is you can click here to get any number of socio-demographic breakdowns -- in annoying pdf format -- but why bother?  He's dropped in just about every category or way to break people up (sex, region in U.S., income level, race, political persuasion, etc.).  Call it a universal slide, to make a bad health care pun.  You can get broader presidential job approval numbers here, which gives you a sense of their shift over time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Our Personal Networks:
A Methodology Moment

We get our political information in lots of ways -- the news media, obviously, but also from the people we talk to every day, our social network.

It's the latter that is the focus of an article in the most recent issue of Public Opinion Quarterly. The authors look at two different ways of generating survey data about people's social networks.  As the authors write:
"One method asks respondents to provide information about the individuals with whom they discuss 'important matters,' while the other asks respondents to provide information about the individuals with whom they discuss politics.  We find that respondents provide more or less the same data on their political discussion partners regardless of which name generator procedure is used."

My first thought was -- wow, cool, you can get published with a null finding.

My second thought was -- there's leeway in how we study social networks, allowing us to confidently compare studies with slightly different methods.  Useful.

The authors conclude that our "core and political discussion networks comprise the same individuals."  In other words, we talk to the same people ... politics, or not.

That's good to know from a methodological standpoint.  I assumed people carve their larger social networks into smaller chunks.  This chunk is made up of people you talk about politics with, that chunk is people you talk music with, that other chunk is for religion, etc.  Maybe some overlap, but I always assumed there were differences.  This research suggests not.

I'm a bit skeptical. Maybe I'm generalizing from an N of 1, but maybe the lack of a result here has more to do with a methodological quirk in the wording ("important matters" versus "politics") than in how we consciously or unconsciously create our interpersonal networks.  I don't know.  My gut says the method here is too mild to truly capture differences in our interpersonal networks.  The lack of results are useful, especially if you want to combine data from different approaches in a larger analysis, but I don't think we can say quite yet that we have the same interpersonal network for everything.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Social Networks -- as Predictors of Popularity

This appeals to my inner geek, the idea of using social networks as a way to predict the next big hit in pop music. 

This article (warning: math) asks whether it's better to rely in the intrinsic qualities of music or on social networking to predict that next song to run up the charts.  I won't get into the math but the methodology looks sound to me. The authors used as source material for user tags to create a "folksonomy of music."

The result?  Mining the music social networking data does a pretty damn good job of identifying popular songs.  Cool.

Why am I so fascinated? 

Think of the ways we might mine Twitter or Facebook or whatever tomorrow's social networking flavor of the year happens to be to predict the success of a policy, like health care, or even of a candidate's run for office.  If we take social networks to roughly sum up the group mind, then tapping into that should be an interesting snapshot -- not unlike that of a traditional public opinion poll.  I see this as another way of understanding what people think and know about the important, and not-so-important, issues of the day.

Yeah, the math and algorithms are not for the casual user.  Gotta work out the kinks, but I suspect someone will come up with off-the-shelf and on-the-net ways for paid users to do this kind of analysis.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Helping People Decide

The latest Public Opinion Quarterly includes a study with direct bearing on what people know -- in this case, the idea that informing them before surveying them will influence how they answer questions.

The study is Helping Citizens Decide in Referendums (with, of course, a colon and long sentence to create titular colinicity).  The dependent variables were likelihood of voting, preference, strength of opinion, and vote consistency.  What's that last one mean?  It harkens back to some traditional  research that examines how people organize their political positions and whether there's a logical (consistent) arrangement of attitudes.  In other words, you tend to be liberal on a host of issues, or conservative.  Therefore, consistent.

Independent variables?  Various flavors of political sophistication or knowledge through something called ICQ -- which stands for Information and Choice Questionnaire.  Basically, providing people with info about a specific problem before asking them what they think.

A careful reader will note this sounds like deliberative democracy (see my post here on it).  Not quite.  No deliberation taking place, at least the way it's meant, but yeah -- kinda sorta the same idea, that informed opinion is different than public opinion.

Informing people in advance before polling them did lead to more consistent opinions, but more so for people with less education and interest.  This follows theory, to a point.  As the authors note, cognitive processing models such as ELM suggest that people high in political sophistication will be more able and motivated to carefully consider an issue, but here it's the people with lower political sophistication who "profit more." 

I suspect some of this has to do with the artificial nature of a lab experiment, but even so it raises some interesting theoretical and methodological questions.  We've always known informed opinion differs from generic public opinion.  This study takes another step closer to understanding not only how it differs, but the consequences of those differences.

Song Lyrics of the Day

A Don Henley song, The Garden of Allah, includes this bit of lyrics:
Because there are no facts, there is no truth,
just data to be manipulated
I can get any result you like
What's it worth to you?

Kinda sums up my scholarly approach ...

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Civic Engagement Online:
Song Remains the Same

A new Pew Center report finds that online civic engagement is largely the product of the same people engaged in offline ways -- those who with higher incomes and greater education.  In other words, online or offline, the song remains the same.  The graph to the right, hotlinked from the Pew site, says it all.

The largely parallel lines suggest it may be time to stop separating offline and online participation and just fold them into a single measure of political or civic participation.

It's both a theoretical and methodological question, one worth pursuing.

Supreme Court and Political Speech

There's a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that no matter how it is decided, will influence what people know about candidates and campaigns -- in particular the craziness every four years that is presidential politics.

The court meets today for arguments.  Here's one place for a quick backgrounder about Hillary: The Movie and the case.

Do campaign finance laws cover a movie like this one?  I suspect the lines are so blurred that a movie is an advertisement is ... whatever.  I think the Court will dodge this one. Typically the courts give commercial speech less protection than political speech, but what about when a non-profit or commercial enterprise engages in political speech?  I have a feeling the Court will strike down most, if not all, of campaign finance laws and the result will strongly influence future presidential campaigns.    What people know about presidential candidates is already a function of political advertising, but once the spigot is opened, who knows what the end result may be. 

Some fear corporations dominating the airwaves with their money.  Others argue corporations deserve the same First Amendment rights as individuals.  This is where it gets interesting, because an original intent conservative judge might argue that the First Amendment was only intended to protect people, not companies, therefore campaign finance laws must stand.  But as if often the case, original intent folks will quickly forget their focus on original intent when ideology gets in the way.  That'll happen again this time in what will probably be a 5-4 vote to stomp campaign finance reform into mush.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Twitter, Facebook, and "working memory"

I blogged below about this story, that suggests Twitter reduces short-term or working memory while Facebook increases it.  It was a quick link-and-run job -- I had to get to class -- so I didn't take the time to look up the scholar or locate a peer-reviewed journal with an article. 

As an aside, the story mentions a thing called Jungle Memory which you can use to "train your child's brain" and improve memory.  For $49.99, that is.  And it's scientifically proven to increase IQ!  And it slices and dices and is easy to clean! 

But the author Tracy Alloway is a serious scholar who has published in all the major child psychology journals with extensive research in working memory.  I glanced at her stuff.  Impressive.  Though if she's commercially tied to Jungle Memory, that's a tad bit tacky.  I just can't tell that she is, so let's move on.

What about the journal where this research appears?  It doesn't.  According to a post on her site, the Twitter thing is based "on findings from a pilot study, more to follow once the study is complete."

A pilot study?  Oops.

Okay, but does it makes sense? As a user of all the social media mentioned in the story, yeah, it makes sense.

The nature of Twitter is quick bursts (140 characters), coming at ya again and again, and like the MTV videos of old with their quick cuts, we'd expect some influence on patience and short term memory.  I buy the idea, but I'd like to see the methodology and research that supports it, something beyond a pilot study.  But Twitter is not in it for the long haul.  Facebook is more serious, had longer legs, and deserves more scrutiny from a number of scholarly angles.  Myself, I'm fascinated by the public opinion aspects of Facebook, but that's another post for another day.

Twitter Makes You Dumb?

Story here on research that suggests Twitter and YouTube makes ya dumb but Facebook makes ya smart.  On my way to class, so little time to dig into it.  Just had to post in time for any social media conferences that may be happening so they can work it into their curriculum.

Teens and Knowledge of Parental Spending

If you're a parent, this survey (actually, a press release about the survey) will come as no surprise -- teenagers underestimate how much parents spend on back-to-school stuff. Bill Me Later is involved in the survey, for obvious commercial reasons, but it's interesting nonetheless.

Favorite part of the press release:
...a quarter of all teens, and more than one in five preteens, indicated that there is nothing their parents won’t buy them for back to school.

Maybe so, but not in my house.

I suspect this idea could be dramatically extended into other forms of spending to explore the disconnect between what teenagers think their parents spend on them and what parents actually spend.  This is similar to studies that ask people how much the government spends on things like foreign aid (people always overestimate it).  But the teen-parent angle gives it so much more fun -- and, I suspect, the differences are always there.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day Slide

When there is a relatively new president, Labor Day becomes something of a touchstone in how the job is going.  As the graph to the right shows, Obama is doing lousy compared to some,  but better than others.  Graph from this NYTimes story.

Ford?  Easily explained by Watergate and the pardoning of Nixon, so let's set that one aside.  Clinton's slide?  Well, it's before a stained blue dress, so I'm guessing it was the gays in the military thing -- but that's just a guess without taking the time to look it up.

Does this slide mean much?  Not really.  Clinton was easily re-elected.  Carter had no real change and he was defeated.  But in terms of what people think, the Obama folks have to worry about momentum and the perception in the public that he's failed to follow through with his promises.  The health care debate is weighing down his presidential approval ratings, but that's not going to go away.  The talk radio guys slam him every day but relatively few people (20 or so million, already Obama haters) pay attention.

Public perception is fickle.  Right now, if I had to guess on what people know about the presidency of Barack Obama, it's that he's not doing as well as they'd hoped.  Maybe their expectations were too high after Bush.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

News in English and Spanish

I am fiddling with data to study Latino use of news and whether it predicts turnout in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. 

The dependent variable is simple: did you register to vote, and did you actually vote?  These are self reports, fairly straightforward.

I have lots of predictor variables because there are competing theories about which model best explains participation, but these theories fail to include news media consumption.  That got me curious, then I became more so when I turned to the question of whether individuals prefer their news in English or in Spanish.

On one hand, I suspect a preference for news in English will signal integration (aculturation) into U.S. society, so you'd have greater likelihood to vote.  On the other hand, perhaps news in Spanish would be associated with greater voting as it eases the cost of getting such motivating information.

Which one?  Dunno yet.  Still wrestling with theory, but an early peak of the data suggests the former, not the latter.

Possible confounds?  Here's a few -- how long they've lived in the U.S. (if not born in U.S.), how comfortable they are with English, how much attention they pay to news from another country (Mexico, etc.),   Gotta not only control for these, have to examine how they interact with my key independent variable (language preference for news) in explaining my key dependent variable (voting).

There's a lot more to this, of course.  The literature is broad and deep, some of it specifically at Latino/Hispanic voting, a lot of it aimed at other groups, all of it rich in theoretical debate.  Is the SES model enough?  Or is a better model one that focuses on ties to the local U.S. community?  And so on and so on. 

While I work in political participation research and the role of news consumption, this one swerves a bit outside my comfort zone.  That makes it fun.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Women Cheat More, Better Liars About It

Offered with little comment, a story about research that finds women not only have more affairs than men, but they're better at lying about it.  I suppose what you know, guys, isn't what's really happening.  Kinda what people know, at least on a Friday when my standards are low.

"I look better when tanned"

Skin cancer may be the fastest growing type of cancer in the U.S., but some people -- especially young women -- insist that they can't get enough of a tan.  It just makes 'em feel better and more attractive, or at least that's the motivation.

Turns out, according to this study (accessed from campus, your mileage may vary), that it may be unfortunately true. An experiment shows men found darker tanned women to be more physically attractive, thinner, and healthier than they did light and medium tanned women. The study was published in the American Journal of Health Behavior (2008, Volume 32, p. 243-252).

The conclusion?
Campaigns and other interventions targeted at males need to reduce the perceptions that tanned females are healthier, thinner, and more attractive.  Educational efforts targeting females need to reduce attraction-based motivations and to address the need to keep themselves healthy and to not tailor their behaviors to attract males.

In a perfect world, perhaps.  Hopefully someone will come up with a good health campaign to accomplish this, but I have my doubts.  I suspect it'll require some pop culture thing to happen -- a movie, a celebrity, some awful incident.  I suppose a "pale girls are sexy" campaign might work, but it'd have to be done in a clever way.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

What My Congressman Knows

This is what my congressman knows:
  • Barack Obama is a fascist
  • Obama is creating a national police force
  • Obama can be compared to both Hitler and the commies
  • The use of "czars" on policy topics has deeper, scary meaning
  • Aliens are living among us, but Men In Black will keep us safe.
Okay, the last one I made up -- kinda like most everything U.S. Rep. Paul Broun says -- and you can read more here about this nutjob's rants.  Or you can listen to the audio (small children and sensitive pets should leave the room).

I'm no liberal, more of a radical moderate who dislikes both sides equally, but this guy gives conservatism beyond a bad name -- it sends it out to where the black, unmarked helicopters fly.

It's rare I hijack my what people know blog for partisan venting.  And what's scarier is there are many people out there (10-20 percent) who actually believe this stuff.  Another case of partisan ranting that gets in the way of reasoned policy debate.

Added stuff:

For a thoughtful analysis of media miscoverage of the town halls, read this.  If anyone thinks the news media, especially TV, plays into Obama's hands, then think it through.  Over-coverage of town hall screamers energized those opposed to the Democrat plans to overhaul health care.  The TV guys played into Republican hands.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

People Know -- That They're Confused

A new CBS News poll finds that two-thirds of Americans are confused about the whole health care debate.  A pdf of the entire poll is here.

No doubt the screaming in town halls, the wailing of talk radio hosts, and the frothing by Fox News guys has generated some of the confusion -- as has the inability of the Obama Administration or Congress to explain this in a clear, coherent manner.  Still, more people (49 percent) think the town hall protesters do not reflect the views of most Americans.  Forty-one percent think they do.  The breakdown falls along unsurprising partisan lines, there are just more people identifying themselves as Dems today than GOPers. 

And folks kinda blame Obama.  Three out of five Americans think he's not done a good job explaining all health care reform.  His overall approval ratings have also dropped.  A lot.  He's gone from a high of 77 to 55 in approval, according to this site.  He's also as low as 51 percent, according to the same site, different page.

News by Youth

We talk a lot in the news biz about attracting and keeping a young audience, but here's a case of a couple of fairly young people taking over a small newspaper -- a pair of 22-year-olds.  Cool.

Maths? and Science Knowledge

Reading this press release,says U.S. students "trail in maths and science knowledge" compared to kids in other peer nations.  No surprise there, except for the use of "maths" instead of math.  Perhaps this is a language difference (this is the "worldwide" version of the web site), or maybe "maths" is correct because there are different flavors of math.  Dunno, but the plural of math threw me off.  CNN version of the story here.  No plural of math.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Problems with Internet Polls?

Public opinion surveys are a key means of learning what people know or think about the issues of the day.  The growth of Net-based polling is not without critics, and this story based on new research by some Stanford folks suggests that these "opt-in" panels are nowhere near as accurate as traditional randomly drawn samples.  Read the full study here (pdf).