Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Spiral of Skepticism?

A new study is out in Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the closest thing my field has to a flagship academic journal, and it looks at skepticism and political knowledge. The short answer? As the abstract says: "We also found that skepticism leads to increased knowledge at the end of the election through information seeking."

Of course the study is deeply flawed as it fails to cite me, otherwise it looks good. Based on survey data and structural equation modeling (known by my PhD in stats brothers in law as smoke & mirrors), it finds that skepticism increases information seeking, which in turn increases political knowledge.

OK, let's talk briefly about their measure of "factual knowledge." Here's straight from the study:
Factual knowledge. Eight items asked participants to identify the characteristics and policy positions on various issues for each presidential candidate (Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) to measure factual political knowledge. Correct responses were identified as the answers provided by the campaigns and the candidates on each of their websites. Correct answers were coded as “1.” Incorrect and missing responses were coded as “0.” The items covered candidates’ religious affiliation, their position on increasing tax rates, their position on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on small businesses, and their proposed energy plan. The religious affiliation item was an openended question that we coded as being correct or incorrect. Correct responses for Obama included “Christian” and “Protestant.” Correct responses for Romney included “Christian” and “Mormon.” The remaining items were true/false questions.
I have a problem with including the religious affiliation item as we all know, in the case of Obama, it's rife with conspiracy theory thinking and even normally knowledgeable folks believe, for partisan reasons, he's Muslim. Otherwise this is really a measure of campaign knowledge.

Setting this aside, it's interesting to think of skepticism as a good thing. It is for journalists and, indeed, I insist on it from my journalism students, but seeing it treated this way is neat.

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