Friday, April 27, 2012

People Don't Know about _____

If you spend more time than you should (like me) scouring the Internet for studies about what people know, then you come across a standard survey result.  The form goes something like this:  it's a survey by some special interest or industry group that finds people are generally uninformed about (coincidentally) their topic or special interest -- and therefore action must be taken.

Here's one that fits the model nicely.
A recent poll finds that many Americans feel that life insurance rates are much higher than they actually are.

After conducting a survey of more than 2,000 people, the nonprofit LIFE Foundation and LIMRA found that the average conusmer (sic) thought that a healthy 30-year old consumer would pay $400 per year for a $250,000 20-year term life insurance policy.

While each case is different, the groups said that the actual cost is closer to $150 annually. Younger consumers - who likely qualify for the lowest rates - had even more inflated price expectations.
The foundation is, obviously, tied to life insurance.

I'm not saying there's anything necessarily wrong with this.  Who better to point out how little people know about your topic than yourself?  It's just amusing because I run across so many of these.  On the good side, it keeps survey firms employed.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spying on Your Kids

This is a bit off topic for me, but this story discusses the results of a survey of just how many parents spy on their kids' Facebook pages.  Survey says ... 60 percent (U.S.).  Globally, the average is about 44 percent.  Also, a lot more American parents are "connected" to their childrens' social networks than parents in other countries.

And no, I'm not.  I can't even see my daughter's FB wall.  I'm not "friends" with my son, either, but at least I can see his FB wall if I really want to spy on him.

Oh, and for fun, a map below of the percentage of people by state who use Facebook.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

When Amateurs Read Survey Results

Here's the lede of a story posted today on The Daily Caller:
Yet another new survey shows that Republican supporters know more about politics and political history than Democrats.
Well, yes.  Surveys tend to show this, always have.  But if you statistically control for education, these differences tend to disappear.  So while the "story" above does correctly quote the Pew report, it conveniently leaves out this graf:
The partisan gaps in knowledge are at least partly a consequence of demographic differences. On average, Republicans are older and more affluent than either Democrats or independents, and both of these are associated with knowledge about the parties’ positions and leaders.
In other words, amateurs when it comes to reading and understanding surveys, and especially survey methodology, should ask a pro before writing bullshit.

And my favorite graf:
The Pew survey adds to a wave of surveys and studies showing that GOP-sympathizers are better informed, more intellectually consistent, more open-minded, more empathetic and more receptive to criticism than their fellow Americans who support the Democratic Party.

As someone steeped in this literature, a whole chunk of this paragraph above leaves me scratching my head and wondering where the hell these studies are, because I've not seen them.  Not saying it's not true -- I suspect some of it may indeed be the case, but I know the selective exposure literature, for example, demonstrates that conservatives in particular are less open-minded.  It's a traditional, consistent finding.  Again, when a partisan hackery tries to take advantage of social science.

Oh, and the original story didn't include an actual link to the Pew study.  Here it is.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Survey says ...

A quick compilation of studies and surveys on what people know that made the news in the last couple of days:
  • Lots of people are using mobile bankers, but more are worried about security of their financial data.
  • It's National Infertility Awareness Week, or so says this story, which of course points out our lack of awareness of it being National Infertility Awareness Week.
  • College students may not know much about history, but they also don't know much about their own credit cards.

Monday, April 16, 2012

People Are (not) Supid

Often people write the column or blog post that I wish I'd written.  Matt Corley did just that last month in The American Prospect, but I'm slow to stumble across it. 

His piece, Most Voters Aren't Stupid, touches on a common theme here and I strongly recommend his column not necessarily because I agree with everything he says, but for his lucid discussion of some of the pitfalls and problems that arise when we discuss what people know.

Let's start with his last graf:
Low levels of public political knowledge are an empirical fact, and journalists like John King shouldn’t shy away from acknowledging that—but, they need to be careful. Calling the public stupid isn’t only inaccurate—it’s counterproductive. Plenty of people are happy to paint themselves as the defenders of the American voter by responding to claims about voter ignorance with populist indignation.  In the end, it’s stupid to call voters dumb, but it’s ignorant to claim they’re well-informed. 
One of the conclusions he reaches, and one I agree with, is that people are "smart" about the topics they follow or interest them.  This harkens back to points argued far better by Doris Graber or, even better, V.O. Key, who famously said "The voters are not fools."  Yeah, there are "stupid" people out there, but they're stupid about everything.

Perhaps the main reason survey after survey finds the American electorate relatively uniformed is because the American electorate is relatively uninformed -- about the topics we ask about. 

Who writes the questions?  Political scientists, Pew Center survey managers, journalists, lots of folks with a PhD (um, like me) who are also news junkies and have a good idea what people should know, in a perfect world, about current affairs.  Certainly a good argument can be made for why people should be able to identify members of the Supreme Court, or recognize the president's latest economic proposal, or be aware of the latest development in the Middle East.  But as Marcus Prior so aptly pointed out, choice has allowed many -- who never really cared about public affairs -- to flee the news for more entertaining content.  Graber, in particular, used in-depth interviews to demonstrate people are informed -- about the topics that matter to them, which often differ from the topics we prefer to ask about.

In-depth interviewing?  Hard.  Survey questions?  Easy.  And cheaper.  And more generalizable to the population as a whole.  It's a methodological balancing act.

Plus let's not underestimate the importance of pseudo-news, faux news, partisan hackery (which sums up cable "news" to a large extent).  Much more colorful to be true, much for fun and a fitting example of my empty calorie news hypothesis that as people fill up more and more on the more entertaining versions of news, they're less likely to consume real news.  The result?  People appear, if not stupid, a lot less informed in our traditional surveys than we'd like.  

A Journalist Goes Academic

In a rush this morning, but as an avid consumer of academic research I point to this fun Atlantic piece about the papers at a political science convention.  It's low-hanging fruit to make fun of academic titles, but this piece does a lot more than that, and even finds work with consideration.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Taxing the Rich?

No surprise:  Obama supporters want higher taxes on the rich.

Big surprise: Even a sizable majority of Mitt Romney supporters like the idea.

To do the math, 93 percent of Obama supporters support raising taxes on the rich, while 66 percent of Romney supporters think that's also a pretty good idea, at least based on this survey.  We have a consensus!  Except that this is about the only issue in which Obama and Romney supporters agree, according to the press release, at least when it comes to tax policy.  No doubt the results of this national survey will find their way into the Obama campaign's talking points.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Journalists Know ... About Religion

We've already established the general public varies widely in what it knows about religion (atheists do best?).  Now we have this new study of what journalists and the public think about religion and especially religion coverage.
Here are some key points in this "first-of-its-kind survey (their words):
  • Only 19 percent of journalists think of themselves as "very knowledgeable" about religion.  Keep in mind this is a measure of perceived knowledge, not actual knowledge.  Also not in the press release, but in the full report, is that nearly one-third of journalists consider themselves "knowledgeable," so another way to write the lede might be that half of journalists consider themselves at least knowledgeable about religion.  Only 1-out-of-10 journalists said they were not knowledgeable.
  • No one is happy with how religion is covered.  According to the report: "A majority of both the public and reporters agree the news media “does a poor job of explaining religion in society,” with 57.1 percent and 51.8 percent agreeing, respectively."  I suspect you'd get the same result on a lot of other topics.  
  • I have a well known weakness for typologies (also for coffee and adult beverages).  The report divides the public into the kind of religion news consumer they appear to be.  It's a neat typology that categorizes people as either focused, specialized, casual, occasional, and non-consumers of religion coverage.   They then examine the kinds of demographic and other breakdowns you see based on this typology.
  • TV does poorly in covering religion.  This one surprised me a bit.  According to the report: "Both the public and reporters ranked TV news lowest in the quality and quantity of religion coverage compared to other media with 28.1 percent of the public and 8 percent of reporters responding that broadcast news provided “good” religion coverage."  I agree, just surprised the results came out that way.
  • Interesting differences emerge between the public and journalists on preferred topics of coverage.  The public's top three are (1) spirituality (2) religion and politics (3) local church news.  Journalists kinda agree.  They have it (1) religion and politics (2) religion and international politics (3) spirituality.  No surprise that journalists go more for the politics angle.  Local church news, for journalists, is #6.  There's something to be learned there for local news organizations
I could go on and on, given the length of the report.  Check it out yourself in a full, fat pdf.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Misperception -- The New Normal?

Here's the pr release version of a new study that supports some of my own research on the persistence of political misperceptions in American society.  Indeed, the whole Obama-Muslim thing.  Been there, published that.  But this study expands on misperceptions and myths in general.  Here's a fun graph:
The gap between conservatives and liberals, however, was much wider among the most informed voters, the Wisconsin researchers found. Conservatives with higher levels of general political knowledge (as identified through a battery of true/false knowledge questions) actually had a slightly greater likelihood of identifying Obama as a Muslim than less knowledgeable conservatives. Among liberals, misperceptions decreased dramatically as levels of general political knowledge increased.

Obviously there's little in terms of method and theory in a pr release, so we can't dig deep into the material, but there's some serious folks behind the study so if it becomes a journal article, no doubt it'll be a good one.