Monday, October 31, 2011

Ignorance in New Zealand?

A New Zealand news story reports:
Taranaki's students could have a lot riding on this month's election but they might not even know it, according to a recent survey which reveals their political ignorance. 

Calling it "political ignorance" seems a bit strong to me.  A lack of awareness, perhaps, but ignorance is over the top given only 20 percent didn't know an election was taking place.  But for those of you budding methodology students out there, note this next graf:
The survey gauging the political knowledge of 32 Witt students shows more than half didn't know a referendum was being held alongside the election, while 62 per cent said they didn't understand the MMP system. 
 WTF?   You're computing percentages of 32 students?  Of 32 friggin students?  If we're going to talk ignorance, let's talk ignorance of basic research methodology, let's talk Survey Sampling 101, let's talk ... oh, never mind. 

Finally, the truly scary part -- the results "will form an academic paper," the story says. 

Um, no -- not unless you're talking about in-depth interviews and rich data, not a mere survey of 32 kids.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Seven (Awareness) Dwarves

While the 2011 group of potential Republican nominees may make for great television, they're not doing so well when it comes to public recognition.

A new Pew Center report finds name recognition for the Seven GOP Dwarves is not up to par compared to previous years.  Asked what candidates they can recall, 28 percent of U.S. adults managed Rick Perry and 27 percent recalled Mitt Romney.  Not great, considering at about the same time four years ago 45 percent recalled Giuliani and 30 percent Romney.  You'd think Romney would be doing better, at least in name recognition.

For Newt Gingrich fans -- good news.  Only 1 percent recalled the former Speaker of the House in October 2007.  This time around, he's up to 6 percent.  Break out the champagne, but keep it cheap.  He's still stuck in single digits.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Thank God for Rick Perry

Republican presidential hopeful Gov. Rick Perry has come through for me -- raising subtle doubts about Barack Obama's birth certificate.  I here I was, afraid the birthers were gone. 

Why do I care?  First, it's just so much fun, this whole birther thing.  Second, I've done research on the birthers that is now sitting at an academic journal awaiting reviews.  Any publicity about birthers, from a strictly personal point of view, is good publicity.  Makes my research all the more relevant.

In other words, it's all about me me me.

Now if Donald Trump would only re-enter the race.  Or Donald Duck.  And that I'm-not-a-witch chick, too. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Religion and Science Knowledge

An excellent blog post digs deep into General Social Science data to explore whether the religious are scientifically knowledgeable, or not.  Also, interesting discussion below the post.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Debates and Persuasion

Of those who have watched the GOP debates so far, about a third say seeing the candidates perform has changed their mind, so says a new report out from the fine folks at Pew.

But do debates really persuade?  The results are mixed.

There is a huge body of work on political debates, and in that literature you'll find a lot of it devoted to the persuasive power of such debates on the public mind.  To unfairly summarize all this work in a few sentences, the short answer is debates sometimes, but rarely, matter, at least at the presidential level.  There are a few famous anecdotes (Nixon vs. Kennedy, or Ford freeing Poland), but for the most part debates don't move a lot of people one way or the other.

Most of the research focuses on the final big debates in a presidential election.  Very little has been done to study debates at this stage, when members of the same political party are squabbling for the nomination.

The Pew report is really asking people whether they think their minds have been changed, not whether minds really were changed.  That may seem more academic than practical, but you'd be wrong.  There's a big difference between what people think they know and their actual knowledge.  Yes, the correlation between the two at the aggregate level is positive and significant, but buried in those data are the folks who think they know a lot ... but don't.  Also buried in the Pew data, I suspect, are those who think their minds were changed ... but weren't.  As long as we're clear on what we mean by the questions we ask, no harm done.

Monday, October 17, 2011

I'm a bit late getting to this one, but it's a report of an interesting study (abstract here) that finds:
Low-income youth are more apt to vote if they are involved in political activism, according to a new study that also notes the influence of friends and family.
This is a fairly understudied population -- hard to reach, hard to get to participate, and often with less political power (thus, less interest in those who pay for surveys and other forms of research).  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Local Knowledge

Here's an older post but a good hint of an upcoming Public Opinion Quarterly piece (pdf version here) that argues our assumptions of what people know are based on the narrow reliance of national politics at the expense of local politics.  When you examine knowledge about local politics, a "slew of differences" emerge.

First, I love the word "slew."  You so rarely get to use it in a sentence.  Second, this makes an excellent point, though I'm not going to discuss it in detail until I see the final version in POQ, in case there are some changes.  That said, I offer the following from the discussion section of the pdf above that discusses what the author found:
The first is that scholars may have overlooked evidence that the public as a whole is generally more competent than believed by not including citizens' local political knowledge in their work. The second is that, even if the public as a whole is not more competent, evidence of specialization by citizens across contexts may indicate that certain groups of citizens are more (or less) competent than previously thought.
The argument here is simple: we need to reconsider our assumptions on who tends to be competent and who tends not to be competent based on previous studies that rely largely on national data.  "Different citizens are knowledgeable about different matters based on relevance, accessibility, and aptitude," writes Lee Shaker.  After statistically controlling for a number of factors, "neither black respondents nor women knew less about local politics than their white, male counterparts - though they were less knowledgeable about national politics."  That's a significant, and fascinating, finding.  Plus, the advantages of education, so prominent in traditional national surveys, appear less important when examining local knowledge.

While a single study won't overturn everything we thought about the predictors of political knowledge, this one does raise some substantial questions and, best of all, challenges some assumptions.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Does What People Know Matter?

Scholars have long argued that political knowledge matters.  The more folks know, the more likely they are to participate in politics, to vote, and to make ideologically consistent choices.  In other words, the more people know, the better they participate in a democracy.

Here's a study that looks at the question in a slightly different way.  Unfortunately I don't have access to the complete study, at least not online, so we're forced to operate from the abstract.  From what I read there is probably some sophisticated modeling going on, so maybe it's good I can't read the entire piece.  Still, read the following:
Simulations of hypothetical electorates under different assumptions about the distribution of political knowledge show that while some citizens would change their votes if more knowledgeable, the primary effects of increasing voter knowledge is to raise turnout levels and to solidify preexisting vote tendencies. The few vote changes that result from increased political knowledge largely average out in aggregation. 
In other words, the models suggest a more informed electorate wouldn't change how people vote but it would change how often they vote.  That's good news -- if we could wave a magic wand and make people more knowledgeable.  Too bad a sizable chunk of the electorate has tuned out of the news.  We'd need that magic wand to improve the electorate.  That, and perhaps better quality news.

And then there's this:
Increased turnout resulting from a more informed electorate, however, favors Democratic candidates in two of the four studied elections. 
On the surface this seems at odds with the quote above.  Not necessarily so, depending on how they modeled the data.  It just suggests that a hunk of the electorate that doesn't vote but would be motivated to do so if suddenly more knowledgeable would tend to vote Democratic.  This makes sense to anyone who has spent time deeply analyzing election data or just time spent as a journalist covering elections.

So Democrats, especially, would love to lay their hands on that magic wand.