Color Me Surprised: America is More Polarized than it was 20 years ago

Pew ran a piece last week on the Political Polarization of the American public.

Using data collected on a national survey of 10,013 adults nationwide from January 23-March 16, 2014, the Pew Research Center found that Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines than at any other point in the last two decades.  Not surprisingly, these divisions are greatest among those who are most engaged and active in the political process.


I guess the most intriguing thing about the article was how it wasn’t surprising.  When the line between facts and opinions is porous as we are now seeing, I guess it isn’t surprising that people become more consistent in their belief structures and ideologies.  This wouldn’t be a problem, except that now things like “news” and “fact” exist as positions on a spectrum of red to blue.

Take for example, the controversy that rose from comments by the Dixie chicks front woman Natalie Maines during a performance in London about George Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003.  Her remark: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”  The kerfuffle was swift, and Maines became subject of death threats.  Fast forward to earlier this year when southern rocker Ted Nugent called President Obama a “subhuman mongrel” who should be convicted of treason.  Where is the outrage?  Where are the calls to boycott Nugent?

I’d be interested to know to what extent the rise of cable news and alternative “news” sources available to consumers influenced this polarization.  Twenty or thirty years ago, the news was the news.  Viewers couldn’t choose the flavor of their news like we choose cool ranch or nacho cheese doritos.  Thoughts?

Mess Hall: Collaboration at DePaul

How well does DePaul support cross-disciplinary collaboration? While intra-college projects do happen, a model for accommodating partnerships across colleges seems more pipe dream than reality. Moving innovative collaborative projects from the individual “hero-driven” approach to a process supported and valued by the institution was the topic of the May 19 Mess Hall session by Robin Burke of the College of Computing and Digital Media. Within the frame of innovation and supporting collaboration, Robin also discussed CIRSCI, the Collaboratory for Interdisciplinary Research, Scholarship and Curricular Innovation that he and SSRC Director Greg Scott have proposed to DPU administration.

“If you want to work together, you’ve got to be together,” Robin declared. A good starting point, Robin suggested, might be locating informal meeting spaces and federating existing institutes or resources that could facilitate fledgling partnerships. We recorded Robin’s brief presentation, which you can watch here. You can access related documents the links below.

Slides: A Collaboratory to Support Interdisciplinary Projects

CIRSCI Proposal

Faculty Council Resolution: Support for Collaboration

Discussion following the presentation focused on communication and documentation of both new and existing projects. Where can potential collaborators find each other or meet to hatch ideas—temporary pop-up locations and events, perhaps? What examples are underway at DePaul and where can we learn about them—maybe document them through a website? What constitutes an acceptable collaborative end product and how do you demonstrate value?

Let’s continue the discussion and talk about collaboration. What do we need? How do we get there?

Last night, a show on HBO called “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” featured one of the most stunning visualizations of the “debate” over climate change I’ve seen to date.


In it John Oliver ridicules the way cable news organizations present climate change “debates” for their viewers.  Mostly, it is one climate change denier “debating” Bill Nye (of Science Guy fame), which makes it appear to the viewer, that scientists view the issue as contentious, with experts split 50-50 with half agreeing with the idea that humans are causing climate change and the other half, well, not.  In reality, there is not nearly that kind of uncertainty in climate change research.  This paper has already been written, reviewed, accepted, and published.  Cook et al (2013), found that 97.1% of the research on the topic endorses the view that humans are causing global warming.

Oliver’s critique is, that the preference for presenting both sides of an issue equally is problematic when there really is no debate, that is, when an overwhelming majority of scientists agree on the major components.  Perhaps this convention is best reserved for issues where debate can contribute meaningfully to some process, like the selection of presidents.  Debate there is good, right?  Get each candidate on record talking about issues that concern Americans.  The deference towards covering all aspects of an issue equally, is problematic when there is no debate.  For these cases, it might be useful to ask Bill Nye and Stephen Hawking to debate which number is greater: 5 or 15.

This ridiculousness is particularly evident in cases such as causes of climate change or the non association between vaccines and autism.  The convention of illustrating “the sides” of an issue with representatives expressing their opinion becomes problematic for Americans, who are consuming greater amounts of information and opinion that masquerades as “news”.

Authors of dystopian literature often conceptualize the downfall of society as an acute event: a nuclear war with cyborgs, a zombie outbreak, or global pandemic.  What if the downfall of society, of modern civilization wasn’t such a catastrophic event, but a series of minor events?


In 50, 100, or 200 years, are historians going to look back on what happened with media and view it as the beginning of the end of modern civilization?  Is there a way that things like eroding structures of scientific and intellectual authority, consolidation of political power through changes in campaign finance (and the inevitable increases in social and economic inequality these will bring), as well as growing narcissism occurring alongside declines in community cohesion contribute to civilization?  To society as we know it?


On Chicago Potholes+Big Data

One thing I was not prepared for when I moved from Florida last year was the sheer state of roads here in Chicago.  The potholes are insane.  AmIrite? In fact, I have taken to naming them.  With help of friends on the Facebook, some names I have come up with: The Kraken, The Terminator, The Abyss, The Violator, Destructor, Earthquake, The Tea Party (for the trolls out there), the Door to China, the Door to Narnia, and The Gorge (affectionately, this should be pronounced like “Jorge”).


Oh, you think I am being melodramatic?  I offer you this evidence from Old Town:


I have worked through several different theories as to why potholes are so prominent in Chicago, thinking it was about the cold and the snow.  I am no scientist, but I suspected that it was a combination of the two that caused potholes.  If this theory holds water, one would find other large northern cities like Boston, New York, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Madison, Detroit, Columbus, and St. Louis rounding out the top 10 cities with the worst potholes, even if there was such a list.  Oh wait, there is.

A national transportation research group called TRIP, issued a report in October 2013 that listed the cities with the worst road conditions in the United States.  Rubbing my hands together like a gleeful child, I opened the document, looking for evidence that would support my theory.  And there was none.

The report categorized cities among several different indicators that influence road conditions in a metropolitan area.  According to TRIP, annual VOC (vehicle operating costs) and the % of poor in a metro area are important.  One could argue about the validity of a measure like VOC as an indicator of the damage that cars incur from poor road conditions.  It is possible that this might not be accurate in cities without extensive and well-developed public transportation systems, requiring more people to own cars in order to transport themselves around.  This would increase the number of poor people who own cars, but cannot afford to maintain them (they might report lower VOC).  Also, people living in cities with strong public transportation networks might decide to forego costly car repairs because they can.  If an encounter with a rough pothole leaves them needing costly car repairs, they might be able to use alternative methods of transportation until they can afford the repairs, lowering the risk of near-future damages, because they abstain from driving for weeks or months at a time.  Of course there is likely some merit to the inclusion of “percent of poor people” there are in a metro area means there is less taxable income and thus, fewer resources for public works like road repair.

Below are tables for the 20 urban areas with greater than 500,000 residents, the first is for annual VOC and the second is for % poor in the city.  Of the twenty cities listed in each table, 16 overlap.  This means that 16 of the cities with the highest VOC are also in the top 20 for % poor in large urban areas.



What is intriguing (and unfortunate for my Cold Hard Winter theory) is the presence of so many warm/temperate weather cities on the VOC list (assuming that VOC is a valid indicator of poor road conditions).  If you are curious about how Chicago compares: Index A details the state of Chicago’s roads as 33% poor, 39% mediocre, 14% fair, and 14% good and #29 on the percent poor list with 33% of residents considered poor.  In terms of VOC, Index C shows that Chicago falls just outside the top 20 with an annual cost of $567 a year.

My takeaway- roads in Chicago are bad, but not as bad as some places.

Some are suggesting putting Big Data to use by crowd-sourcing locations of bad potholes.  Boston’s Mayoral office New Urban Mechanics launched a project in July 2012 called Street Bump has attempted to do this, allowing users to report potholes with their smart phones.  This is an interesting concept, particularly if you consider what is possible with real-time reporting and navigation, with other apps, like Waze.  Could you imagine driving and your phone giving a ping or some other notification that you’re about to drive into Destructor?

Because, that would be amazing.

He Who Pays the Piper…

In a post on her blog Africa is a Country, Smith College Assistant Professor Kim Yi Dionne took the Atlantic to task failing to recognize the oldest play in Non-Profit Industrial Complex Playbook.  Long story short: The Atlantic published an article on sexual rights of passage in Malawi, whereby the author took some license generalizing with statistics and the entire story was sensationalized.  For good measure, Dionne shed light on the relationship between funding entities and the news or research they support:

“…The Atlantic aren’t the only ones to have picked up Grace Mwase’s story. It was also published (by different writers) in The Star (from Toronto), the Huffington Post, and in the online Malawi news agency, Nyasa Times (those versions, however, left out the “parasite-ridden lake”).

Why are we seeing this same story of this Grace Mwase across multiple outlets? Because it was an NGO set-up.

The NGO brings a girl with a sensational story, invites reporters to come and hear the story, and then these reporters who know little to nothing about the context take as truth what’s being told to them and essentially write a press release for an organization competing to win a $10,000 prize. The writer’s bonus: one more stamp in the passport, one more country she can say she’s reported from.”


This isn’t the first time time (nor will it be the last) that individuals and entities with vested interests back the production of “evidence” which coincidentally, supports a particular cause.  Last Week, on Fresh Air, Terri Gross interviewed Eric Lipton (an investigative reporter for the New York Times) on his recent article examining how public policy is influenced at the federal level by “evidence” funded by entities with agendas and ultimatums.  Unfortunately, social media has made it possible for agenda-shaded “news” stories and research articles to be read and liked and shared thousands of times before any one scholar can weigh in and set the record straight.  This does not have to be the case.

Earlier this month, Nicholas Kristoff warned that US scholars increasingly marginalize themselves and their disciplines, by being unable and unwilling to engage with “the public”. This is a reasonable observation.   For many academics in the US, peer-reviewed academic publications are the only currency that matters for tenure and promotion.  Combined with teaching duties and the service required to support bureaucratic institutions with burgeoning administrations, and the result is that the people who are most informed and well-equipped with knowledge to recognize biased research findings and suspicious relationships between funders and researchers.

This poses interesting questions about the purpose and reach of academic publishing.  What is the point of academic publishing?  In one sense, it’s purpose is to inform and educate the reader about a previously unknown phenomenon.  As it is now, the current state of academic publishing does not allow for a broad and diverse readership, because many journals are housed behind pay walls, which most readers are unwilling to traverse to access articles of interest.  The insistence on peer-reviewed publications as the only currency of importance for scholars precludes academic researchers from contributing to the public discourse on a particular issue.  Ostensibly, if this were the case, then scholars should be encouraged to engage with the public at every chance possible, by curating content for blogs, writing op-ed pieces, and participating in online discussion boards and social media.  

Is the purpose of academic publishing to provide the evidence needed for policy and programs that improve the lives of people?  Is that why academic researchers do academic research?  Maybe this was the case before Citizens United.  Perhaps this is my cynicism showing, but I no longer believe that federal policy and program decisions in the United States are based solely on compelling findings from evidence-based research.  If this were the case, efforts by the CDC to conduct research on gun violence would not have been blocked by Congress and the NRA lobby.

If we were to change the fundamental way we think about academic publishing and its purpose, we might consider mandating that researchers and scholars engage the public in more meaningful ways than they currently do.  This would kill two birds with one stone.  First, it would force academic publishing to be more accessible, thereby improving the quality of the public discourse surrounding any controversial issue.  Second, a better informed electorate would ensure that policy and programming is evidence-based with the only force equal to the power of money in politics; the vote.