Saturday, December 22, 2012

What People Know ... about Oral Hygiene?

I can't it's come to this, me writing about dentistry.  Here's a recent story about a survey on what people know about their mouths.  Why would I go on about this?  Hey, it's the holiday season: sweets are getting eaten, eggnog is getting drank, and that last thing we want to think about is our oral hygiene.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Making Good Citizens

Does teaching citizenship actually work? A large study in the U.K. suggests it does.

I've skimmed the entire study (possibly not available to you), published this month in Parliamentary Affairs, and I won't get into all the details.  But the authors do a good job of tracing the history of this natural experiment, how they defined good citizenship, and most important -- how to measure their outcomes (are students who got the curriculum better students).

What I really like is among the outcome variables are measures of online participation as well as the traditional means of being a good citizen. That's neat.  Table 5 really gets at the heart of the study, a series of multiple regression models predicting participation, knowledge, efficacy, and other key outcome variables.   First off, they report the results oddly, leading with their variable of interest and then including all the control variables.  But below lemme sum it all up:
  • Participation is best predicted by education, parental occupation, but also by being in the good citizenship curriculum even after a boatload of other statistical controls.
  • Knowledge is best predicted parental education and trust and also by the curriculum.
  • Efficacy (the sense you can make a difference) is affected by a lot of variables listed above and again by the new curriculum.
Basically, the study ends on a sour note.  The curriculum is being slimmed down or removed.  As the authors write:
An end to compulsory citizenship classes will not of course mean an end to citizenship education in Britain, since some schools will continue to deliver it as part of their mission to educate the next generation. But the large differences observed in Figure 4 between England, where citizenship education has been compulsory, and the other UK countries where it has not been is bound to raise questions about the long-term consequences of this change of policy on civil society in general.

Friday, December 14, 2012

End Times vs Climate Change

More than one-third of Americans believe the recent crappy weather and natural disasters are a sign of the "end times."  Not to be outdone, two-thirds of white evangelical Protestants think so. 

This from a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute of 1,018 U.S. adults, including a segment by cell phone.  There's a CNN version of the story here.

The good news, if there can be any good news?  Six-in-10 Americans think the recent weather is a function of climate change.  Some people, it seems, took science class.

It's a rather long breakdown of results, so take your time to work your way through them.  There's also a pdf of the results.  A few high points:
  • Three-fourths of respondents think "there is solid evidence" the world is warming.
  • Six-in-10 link such global warming to human activity.
  • But 39 percent also agree "natural disasters are a sign from God."
Luckily only 2 percent think we're all going to die later this month when the Mayan calendar thing happens.  Take comfort where you can.

And the next question really gets at the crux of differences between religious beliefs and the environment.  People were asked which statement they agree with more, whether God gave us complete rights to use animals and nature to benefit humans first, or whether God wants us to "live responsibly" with animals, plants and resources not necessarily just for human benefit.  Thirty-eight percent believe nature is there for our benefit, 55 percent think it's there for us to nurture and maintain.  The difference, of course, comes down to whether you accept a literal interpretation of the Bible.  In fact, much of the results above can be traced to that.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fiscal Cliff

Search Google News and you'll get 93,300,000 hits on the phrase "fiscal cliff."

That's a lot of cliffs.

And of course you've got the usual puns, mostly of the tired "driving over the cliff" variety.   Here's a rule about writing -- never go with the first idea that comes to mind.  Driving over the cliff, that's sad.  Diving off the cliff, not much better.  Work at it, folks.  As someone said: Good writing is a war with cliche.  But this is isn't a blog about writing, so let's move on to the question of the day and that is, quite simply, does all this news coverage help or hurt politicians come to some reasonable solution?

In the help column, constant coverage by the cable news networks and pundits has to increase pressure on both sides to compromise.  By the way, search for "fiscal cliff" and "compromise" and you get 93,000 hits.  I find that comforting.  We also know that constant coverage pushes the issue up in the public's agenda as important.  Certainly we've seen a significant increase in the last few weeks, from polls, in how many people recognize the term and think it's a big deal.

In the hurt column, though, you can argue that all the coverage is pushing the political extremes and making it more difficult to reach a solution.  From a theoretical perspective, you can argue that so much coverage (a lot of it, of modest quality) means reporters have to read tea leaves and see things that really aren't there, only making matters worse.  Covering the "fiscal cliff" like a ballgame probably does more harm than good.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Political False Memories

People remember political events that never happened.

Not only that, a new study suggests the reason why has less to do with people guessing and more to do with false memories, especially on questions of a partisan nature.

The study was published in the more recent issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Yeah, it's on my reading list.

As the authors note:
Misinformation, in the form of a demonstrably false belief, is a prevalent phenomenon among American voters and such false beliefs tend to be held in high confidence by voters and are highly resistant to corrective information. (citations omitted)
In other words, people believe what they want to believe.

While "educated guessing" is one way to consider the answers people give to political knowledge tests, the authors suggest "the formation of false beliefs" is a more useful way to understand the answers people give. This explains other work that explores why people believe silly stuff like whether Obama is Muslim (my own research area), but also gets into misattribution -- that we attribute positions or events to candidates or political parties that aren't necessarily true, mainly to fit our own predispositions.

Monday, December 10, 2012

What UGA Students (Don't) Know

There's a story on The Red & Black site about what UGA students know, or don't know, about current events. Two of my Grady colleagues are quoted at length. Are they right? Is there a lack of current events or political knowledge among the best and brightest that is the UGA student body? Does it even matter?

I'll try not to go all PhDweeb on what is my major research area and either support or correct my learned colleagues. Below, though, a few points to consider:
  • Why keep up? There's an argument to be made for rational ignorance. Is the cost of keeping up worth the benefit you receive?   
  • College students have other things on their minds. Yes, their studies, but most likely other, more interesting things than the latest spat between Dems and GOPers. Makes sense that current events knowledge might rank as a lower priority.
  • Are they really any less knowledgeable? Never extrapolate from a small, biased sample (your class). The research shows young folks have always sucked at political knowledge tests. Always. I'm not sure it's any better or worse today. Evidence beyond the anecdotal?
  • Some majors are different. Yes, journalism students need to be informed of current events. Less so, other majors, though I can make good arguments why students in economics, etc., should be keeping up.
  • Democratic theory relies on an informed public.  I've used that line myself in a lot of published papers, and it's true -- to a degree. Problem is, choice plays a role here. We have so many other media choices now, other ways to occupy our time, and it's never been easier to escape the news. Marcus Prior has a terrific book on this subject. Strongly recommended. Unfortunately, we live in an era where obligation and responsibility don't sell.
As you can tell from above, rattled off the top of my head, it's probably best I wasn't interviewed for the story. I can go on and on and on ...

Friday, December 7, 2012

Evil Shoppers

More than 1-in-5 respondents in a national survey say they shopped in a store on Thanksgiving Day.

No turkey for you, heathens.

Fourteen percent said they shopped online on the holiday.  Two-thirds reported having a clue and doing no shopping that day.

Why am I going on about this?  First, because I just stumbled across the survey, which was conducted from Nov. 29 - Dec. 3.  Second, because I need to grade but I really don't want to -- thus this post.

Sixty-three percent say they did not use a mobile device while shopping.  The other numbers were:
  • 14 percent said they used mobile devices to research products found in-store.
  • 16 percent said they used them to compare prices
  • 11 percent took pics or notes with their mobile device about products
  • 19 percent used the phone as an actual phone (clearly not teenagers) and called people to ask about products they saw
  • 7 percent were unsure. Not sure about what.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bloggers and Sources

Bloggers who focus on local news rely most heavily on their own original reporting and sources than they do on newspapers, according to a study published in the latest Newspaper Research Journal.

The author analyzed the content of 100 local blogs from across the country (2,246 posts).  Rather than rely on their newspapers, bloggers "were actually more likely to use original sources--including primary documents and original reporting--than traditional media sources."  

That said, use of material from newspapers far outranked blogger use of local TV news, hardly surprising given its quality and lack of presence in all markets.

Overall, original sources and reporting accounted for about one-quarter of blogger content.   Newspapers were the source of about 20 percent of the content, TV about 3 percent.  The rest came from a category called "online" or "other."

There were significant differences among types of news stories, of course.  State and national economic news produced by newspapers, for example, made up nearly a third of all blogger content on that topic.  But let's look at the category of news called city/county government/politics.  That's the meat-and-potatoes of local news.  Blogger content came from:
  • Newspapers: 23.0 percent
  • TV: 2.3 percent
  • Online: 33.7 percent (non-MSM sites, other blogs, etc.)
  • Original Sources: 12.5 percent
  • Original Reporting: 20.4 percent
  • Other: 8.2 percent
As you can see above, for local government news, the main source for bloggers is other blogs or non-mainstream news sources.  Next comes traditional newspapers, then original reporting.  If we collapse the two "original" categories into a single group, though, it outranks papers.

What don't we know from this?  The quality of the stories, obviously, their tone and factual content.  But this is an interesting step in understanding where bloggers get their starting points for stories.

For you academic nerds, the full cite:  Watson, B. R.  (2012).  Bloggers rely on sources outside traditional media.  Newspaper Research Journal, 33, 20-33.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Breaking Down the Gallup "Ethical" Question

A Gallup Poll out this week finds only 24 percent of Americans give "high" or "very high" marks to journalists on ethics.  Oh my God!  Let the journalistic hand-wringing begin!

Not so fast, my friend.

First, below is the entire list of occupational fields and their scores.  You may have to click on it to get it big enough to view well, or check out the Poynter story about the poll here.  I don't want to bury my own lede, but lemme say there's more to the story than this one 2012 poll.  Continue below the graphic.

First, the good news.  Journalists outscore car salesmen.  The bad news?  Somehow, bankers score higher.  Bankers?  Really?  Where have these people been in the last few years? The original Gallup report provides some nice graphical display of trend data for many of the occupations above -- but not journalists.  I'm here to help.

All the headlines are about the 24 percent, how far down journalism fares.  But that matters only if journalists have dropped significantly in the last few years compared to other major occupations.

The real news?  They haven't dropped.  Not really.

In 1997, when Gallup first asked the question, only 23 percent gave journalists a "very high" or "high" ethical rating.  It's high was in 2001 (a 9/11 effect, inching up to 29 percent), it's low was 2000 (a post-election effect, incying down to 21 percent).

In other words, there's not a hell of a lot of change.  Check out the quick graph I made below, which shows you how little has actually changed.  It shows journalists and bankers (some years are blank as they didn't ask the question of journalists).  They more or less track one another, which suggests all the journalistic hand-wringing -- it's best left unwrung.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Nate Silver vs. Politico

I'm a bit late getting to this, but the itty bitty brouhaha between Nate Silver, famously of 538 fame, and Politico deserves a few words.

A good starting point is the October column by Dylan Byers asking whether Silver is a one-term wonder, arguing "more than a few political pundits and reporters, including some of his own colleagues, believe Silver is highly overrated."

Of course, this was written before Silver called the 2012 election -- all 50 states -- correctly.  Nerds 1, Pundits 0.

This past week, Silver let fly at Politico.  There are plenty of versions of the story, but to save space I'll point to this one.  The key point by Silver is this:
Politico is a ‘who won the day’ kind of thing, right? They’re trying to cover [politics] like sports, but not in an intelligent way at all. They want to create noise, basically.”
I'm a huge Silver fan.  I'm a numbers guy myself.  But I want to discuss, if every so briefly, whether it's fair to criticize Politico on this basis.  After all, the site is not named Governo (the .com version, by the way, is held by a law firm).  The site is about politics, not governing.  It's about campaigns, not policy -- except when policy finds its way into politics, and even then you don't get a hell of a lot of nuts-and-bolts depth from the guys and gals of Politico. 

It's very purpose, to me at least, is to cover politics like sports. 

And isn't that kind what Silver does, just with statistics?

In the campaign season, Silver is aggregating state and national public opinion polls about the greatest of horse race questions -- who's gonna win.  He just does it very well, better than the pundits to get overpaid to see things that aren't really there, like magical invisible momentum.  What pundits really hate is how Silver points out, through careful analysis, how their overpaid advice really makes little difference. 

Of course this isn't all Silver does.  He made his name crunching baseball statistics, and he often turns his mathematical models at other topics as well.  He's a good writer, a good thinker, and a helluva number cruncher.

But 538, in campaign season, is turning mostly to politics as sport, as in who's gonna win the ballgame.  It's just that 538 does it better, without all the window dressing and "expert" opinion, than the pundit sites.  I love him for it.  In this fight, like the earlier ones, he wins.  I just think his criticism of covering politics like sports is a bit of a whiff.  That's kinda Politico's approach, it's underlying assumption.  If I want policy, I go to the NYTimes and a host of other elite sites and pubs.

Also, I've finally started Silver's book.  More on that later.