Friday, May 25, 2012

Comparing College Students with the Brain Damaged

There was a The Onion headline once that went something like this:

Study Finds
College Students
Linked to Humans

That hed above, that's satire.  Maybe.  But here's a new study that compares college students to people with brain damage, at least in what they know about politics.  The link doesn't tell you a lot other than the title, so lemme start there:

Assessing Voting Competence and Political Knowledge: Comparing Individuals with Traumatic Brain Injuries and “Average” College Students 

How's that for fun?  You're probably asking, what the hell, why study this?  Isn't it obvious that there's no difference?

As a professor and father of a college student, I'm right there with ya.  But let's get to the study itself.  As you can tell from the link above, all we have access to is the title, so I used a different database to scare up an abstract, but not full paper, to get a sense of what's going on here.  

It's not as dumb a study as the title suggests.

First, the authors note that many states bar people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) from voting.  This I did now know.  So the authors found 14 people with TBI and compared them with with 22 "average" college students on, according to them, "measures of voting capacity and election-specific political knowledge." 

Okay, you see the problem right off.  We're comparing 14 people with 22 people.  How do you decide, from an N of 22, who is "average?"  I've got no idea either.  And the tests they used to measure competency and knowledge are new to me.  Let's turn to the abstract itself for some guidance:

We compared their responses to healthy controls (HC) (students at a large public university in North Carolina; n = 22) on voting competency and political knowledge using the Competency Assessment Tool for Voting (designed by Appelbaum, Bonnie, and Karlawish), as well as measures of 2008 election information and questions drawn from the United States Citizen and Immigration Services citizenship exam. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study to compare election-specific knowledge of persons with TBI and HCs. We find that those with TB! scored similarly to the healthy controls on competence to vote and election-specific knowledge. We conclude suffrage laws should not be based on overly broad, general assumptions regarding the cognitive capacity of citizens, but on whether or not they express a desire to vote.

So as I said above, there's a good finding here depending on how much quality you place on the voting knowledge and competence of "average" college students in the first place.  The data strongly suggest that states that ban people with severe brain trauma from voting need to rethink these laws.

For me -- and I can't resist -- the idea that "average" college students and people with brain damage score about the same on political knowledge tests, that says a lot about college students themselves.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bilingual and Brains

There's an old joke:

What do you call someone who speaks three or more languages?  


How about two languages?  


How about just one language?  


Okay, so it's not that funny, but it's the best I could come up with to lead into this story about a study that finds speaking two or more languages "may benefit our brains."  See the brief press release linked in this graf for more details.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Odds and Ends off the Net

 Here are a few of my favorite topics found on the net.
  • Where do people get their legal knowledge?  TV, of course.  That's the result of a geographically narrow yet interesting little survey that probably surprises no one.  I often warn my own journalism students that the drama they see on television cop/court shows is nothing like the real world.  Most trials are dull, often painfully so, and rarely anything happens that will surprise you if you've taken the time to read depositions and the like.
  • What's the most dangerous TV show?  Spartacus and Game of Thrones, at least in body counts, according to this story.  I've not watched the former, but the latter?  Oh yeah, I can see it.
  • In another happy finding, young people are dumber than even you thought, at least when it comes to contraception and birth control.  Oh, great.
  • Smartphones are turning us into "real time information seekers and problem solvers."  Really.  It says so here, on a tech website, so it must be true.  Actually the story is based on Pew data, an excellent info source.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Grazing on the News

I wrote a few years ago about a 2007 study on news grazers, the folks who skim the news, surf the channels, pick up bits and pieces of information along the way but who don't spend a lot of quality time on any one channel.  In that earlier study, grazers were younger, less informed, more likely to be men.

A 2011 study examines the same topic from a somewhat different perspective.  Grazers (or switchers, as they called them, since it focuses on people who flip channel to channel) in the 2008 election tended to be those who were more interested in the election and was positively related to political knowledge.


Two very different portraits of a grazer.  In part these differences can be explained by measurement approaches and in part by the dependent variables examined.  In the earlier study, grazing was the dependent variable.  In the latter study, it's an independent or moderating variable.  And no doubt channel switching is a very specific behavioral concept while grazer in the earlier study is a bit more fuzzy and less television-specific.

I'm not sure what we can take from these two different results, other than a lesson in how we conceptualize and operationalize our variables can make all the difference in our results.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sugar Makes You Dumber?

Sugar makes you dumber, according to a new study.

Well, it does -- if you're a lab rat, and dumped into a maze.

According to the study:  "Eating a high-fructose diet over the long term alters your brain's ability to learn and remember information. But adding omega-3 fatty acids to your meals can help minimize the damage."

So after a Coke you should eat some fish and, I suppose, break even.

Obviously the Corn Refiners Association (yes, such a thing exists) is not sweet on this study.  Fructose is in nature, they say.  It's okay.  Drink all you want.  Now, what were we talking about again?  And can someone get me out of this maze?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fox News Makes You Dumb?

A Huffington Post piece addresses research I've written about previously, the surveys about what people know and the news networks they say they rely on most often.  The column speaks for itself.  Just passing it on with the caveat that it's all so very much more complicated (isn't it always?) than presented in the original study and in the HuffPo article.  Too busy to dig into now.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Public Opinion

It's getting harder and harder to find out what people think.

Basically, we're having an increasingly difficult time reaching and completing surveys, according to a new Pew report.

You may not think surveys are all that important.  You're wrong.

For a lot of reasons, surveys matter, and perhaps the biggest reason is that it's one way to know what people really think about an issue versus what some politician or corporation or TV talking head tells us what people think.  It's an instant fact-check for the folks who try to convince us they really have a secret line to the public mind.

The lower the quality the surveys, the more error that creeps in, and the more open they become to methodological challenges by people who'd rather tell us what they magically know about public opinion rather than asking real people what they think about the issues of the day.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Phrases I Hate

Occasionally I'll vent about phrases I hate.  Today it's "speak truth to power." Why pick on this one?  Saw it today in the The New York Times and it reminded me that, hey, I hate this phrase.

A Google News search found 98 instances of the phrase being used in the past month.  The Huffington Post likes it a lot -- five times in the last month alone.  And of course the NYTimes, the LATimes, the little-read Washington Times, and the Irish Times, all of these have used it.  Hell, even Patch used it.

It's not that I dislike the sentiment -- other than people lucky enough to be in power, who could be against it?  I detest a phrase that's become so easy to say or write.  It's one of those first level phrases a good writer easily types, and quickly deletes.  The lazy writers?  They keep it in.

Yeah, I'm pointing at you Bill Keller in today's NYTimes.  You should know better.  I'll have to wrap my copy of the paper into a stick and smack you in the nose with aged news.

The last phrase I vented on was "I'm just saying," so let me be clear:  I'm just saying that I hate the phrase "speak truth to power."

I'm just saying.

Friday, May 11, 2012

MTV Redux

Rock the vote and all that stuff, including this story about MTV's latest attempt to get young people to participate in the political process.  Here's an interesting, and somewhat depressing, graf that sums it up nicely (and sadly):
First, MTV is gaming the election. “Data indicates that viewership of sports increased with fantasy sports, especially among women, so we want to translate that to voting by applying similar mechanics to the election,” Rzepka said.
Neil Postman had it right.  We're amusing ourselves to death.

Is it wrong to turn politics into a game just to attract young voters?  Not really.  Journalists, especially the TV folks, and most especially the cable TV folks, turned politics into a game long ago.  This is just the next unfortunate step.

As the story notes, "fantasy election gamers" earn points for registering to vote and tweeting and similar actions.  You get rewarded for watching debates or Meet the Press.  Hell, you get rewarded for watching a party's convention.  On that one I think we all agree -- someone deserves a reward (or several drinks) for sitting through those staged events.

So I come across with a mixed message above.  I find the whole idea of turning politics into a game as rather sad, and yet I recognize that journalists and TV talking heads did this very thing many years ago, so it's hard to blame MTV and anyone else from really really really making it into a game.

Sigh.  Sign me up.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


Some survey results I just can't resist, like the one reported in this news story about how a third of parents rejected a babysitter due to safety concerns.

A good babysitter, it turns out, is hard to find.

This is based on what appears to be a sound national survey of U.S. adults, etc. etc.  I know it has no real what people know aspect, but what the hell, sometimes you just can't resist an interesting finding.

Monday, May 7, 2012

If Everyone Voted . . .

Clarence Page has a column riffing off a study I discussed in some detail recently, about what Democrats and Republicans know (or don't know) about current affairs and political issues.  The Page column goes further, however, in connecting what people know with voting and breaking partisan deadlock by expanding the electorate with more moderate folks.

The column itself is worth reading and his argument, while a bit simplistic, makes perfectly good sense.  Of course it can't happen here, unlike Australia, but if everyone was required by law to vote, it would result in a more balanced electorate -- if by balanced you mean a whole lot of folks forced to vote who really don't give a damn and don't care and are largely indifferent (which is very very different than being independent or non-partisan).

So should everyone be required to vote?  Only if everyone is required to read a good newspaper.  As Gore Vidal said: "Half of the American people have never read a newspaper. Half never voted for President. One hopes it is the same half."

Thursday, May 3, 2012

NPR Makes You Smarter?

Watching NPR or watching The Daily Show makes you smarter about politics.  Partisan cable networks like Fox and MSNBC?  Those make you dumber, at least according to a Fairleigh Dickinson national survey released today.

This is a follow-up to a November survey.  I wrote about that one here.

Back to the more recent release.  Respondents were asked about domestic and international affairs.  To save you a clickthrough here's a couple of interesting grafs that sum up the results:
However, the study concludes that media sources have a significant impact on the number of questions that people were able to answer correctly. The largest effect is that of Fox News: all else being equal, someone who watched only Fox News would be expected to answer just 1.04 domestic questions correctly — a figure which is significantly worse than if they had reported watching no media at all. On the other hand, if they listened only to NPR, they would be expected to answer 1.51 questions correctly; viewers of Sunday morning talk shows fare similarly well.  And people watching only The Daily Show with Jon Stewart could answer about 1.42 questions correctly.

“These differences may be small, but even small differences are important when we’re talking about millions of people,” said Cassino. “We expect that watching the news should help people learn, but the most popular of the national media sources – Fox, CNN, MSNBC – seem to be the least informative.”
There's some wow here.  And a few concerns. Let's touch on the wow factor first.  The results suggest (and only suggest) that partisan-based cable news engages in a form of cog-sucking, as in sucking out cognitions (i.e., thinking, or facts) from its unlucky viewers.  It doesn't really, of course, it's a lot more complicated than that and involves where people choose to get their news and gets all confused with -- as Cassino notes earlier in the press release -- such factors as education and interest.  That's the main concern, the obvious methodological problems with correlations leading to cause-and-effect conclusions without statistical controls for the "usual suspects" (education, etc.) that tend best to predict what people know.  Sorry, PhDweeb methodological moment.

For those who love to dig deeply in these matters, the survey homepage offers details and you can find even more information here.  It's worth the visit.  Why?  Because there's a hint here as to why more partisan-based news might be bad, especially for those who lean the other way.

If you check the second table at the bottom, the one called "Ideology - International Questions" you get a possible answer to what's going on.  Look closely.  The lowest scores are for liberals watching Fox and conservatives watching MSNBC.  At the theoretical level we love the idea of cross-cutting news exposure, of hearing a side you may not normally agree with.  It's healthy for democracy, or so the argument goes.  But the result here suggests it's not particularly healthy for a person's political knowledge.  Perhaps arguing with the TV has a negative effect on learning.  Maybe the liberals watching Fox, or conservatives watching MSNBC, are just not smart enough in the first place and therefore suck at answering political knowledge questions.  We can't tell from here, not without some more sophisticated modeling, but there's something interesting happening here, something I'd love to dig into if I had access to the raw data.

I'd dig deeper, but a giant pile of papers needing grading are perched on my desk, staring at me.  There's fun material that perhaps I can explore later, when time allows.