the downside of fact checking

The below is an excerpt from my book that seemed relevant to the current moment. It’s presaged by this post from 2012.

Fact-checking during campaigns helps make sure the truth is communicated–but also teaches voters that there is a “right answer” and trains them to listen for true vs. false instead of right vs. wrong.

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a dangerous lack of skepticism

Last weekend, Slate announced the use of social scientific tools similar to those used by campaigns themselves to anticipate results over the course of the day. Slate rejects, in editor-in-chief Julia Turner’s words, the “paternalistic” stance of the traditional media embargo on publishing results during Election Day.

Slate is making a bold move by ignoring the embargo, but in doing so they also appear to be ignoring the flaws of data science and a sacrosanct principle of both social science and journalism: skepticism.


Image by Robert Palmer via Flickr

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vague questions for fragmented publics

Timothy Carney wrote an article earlier this week decrying what he calls the “rampant abuse of data” by pollsters and the press this election season. He faults North Carolina’s hometown polling company, Public Policy Polling (PPP), among others, for asking “dumb polling questions” such as the popularity of the erstwhile Cincinnati Zoo gorilla Harambe; support for the Emancipation Proclamation; and support for bombing Agrabah, the fictional country in which the Disney film Aladdin is set.

While I agree with Carney that many of the interpretations of these questions are very problematic (and I should note that I have used PPP many times to field polls for my own research), I think he’s wrong that these are dumb questions and that the answers therefore do not constitute “data.” Quite the opposite: asking vague and difficult-to-answer questions is an important technique for assaying culture and, thereby, revealing contours of public opinion that cannot be observed using conventional polling.

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making the united states plural again

The following is a guest post by Charles Kurzman

America may be divided these days, but it is hardly as divided as when the United States of America were plural.

That’s the grammar used in the Declaration of Independence, which characterized “the thirteen united States of America” as “Free and Independent States.” The founders spoke of “these United States,” a phrase that sounds quaint today but was taken literally at the time.

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his honor wants more truck drivers

Our governor, bless his heart, has come out with his latest education-is-overrated statement:

“We’ve frankly got enough psychologists and sociologists and political science majors and journalists. With all due respect to journalism, we’ve got enough. We have way too many,” McCrory said to laughter from the audience.

He said we have too many lawyers too, adding that some mechanics are making more than lawyers.

“And journalists, did I say journalists?” he said for emphasis.

My favorite neocon friend/mentor/correspondent wrote me to ask:

What say you to your Governor about this? In fact, he is always partly right. In fact, your Univeristy [sic] Entitled Ones are always more wrong than right.

Here’s my answer:

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posner’s same-sex marriage ruling

The Seventh Circuit appeals court ruling on Indiana and Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage bans is out, and is of interest for several reasons. It is absolutely dispositive — really no ambiguity at all. It rests on Richard Posner and colleagues’ “law and economics” paradigm instead of the more traditional rights paradigm. And finally, it is written so clearly, and with significant humor, as to be a pleasure to read. I’ll paste in some of my favorite passages below the fold.

I’ve also got a question for law-and-society and social movements people. The question is this: the legal trend toward same-sex marriage, even in hostile environments, seems nearly a juggernaut. What explains this enormous change over the course of a very short time, in the context of a legal regime that is understood to be, in a certain sense, timeless? In other words, all the materials were available for the court to find this, say, 30 years ago, but that would have been unthinkable. This seems, also, to contradict the main finding of a political science classic, The Hollow Hope, which argued that courts rarely lead social change.

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sociologists statement on Ferguson

Last week, a group of 10 sociologists gathered at ASA to discuss the terrible situation in Ferguson.* Following that meeting, the group wrote up draft text for a statement. Here’s how they diagnose some of the larger problems:

Law enforcement’s hyper-surveillance of black and brown youth has created a climate of suspicion of people of color among police departments and within communities. The disrespect and targeting of black men and women by police departments across the nation creates an antagonistic relationship that undermines community trust and inhibits effective policing. Instead of feeling protected by police, many African Americans are intimidated and live in daily fear that their children will face abuse, arrest and death at the hands of police officers who may be acting on implicit biases or institutional policies based on stereotypes and assumptions of black criminality. Similarly, the police tactics used to intimidate protesters exercising their rights to peaceful assembly in Ferguson are rooted in the history of repression of African American protest movements and attitudes about blacks that often drive contemporary police practices.

If you are interested in signing the statement, you can do so here.

* I was not at the meeting, and thus cannot provide any details beyond what’s in these documents. Links to the petition were circulated by Alison Gerber, who can perhaps answer queries.