September 2012


Mitt Romney and the need for fringe belief entrepreneurship

Christian media plays a prominent role in supplementing the influence of conservatism and Republicanism. Belief that vaccines can cause autism is not predicted by political identity, but could Christian media be home to the leading edge of right-wing belief generation?

Mitt Romney’s campaign took kind of an odd turn this week — odd even in the context of this campaign. They sent out a mailer in northern Virginia touting Romney’s plan to deal with the epidemic of… Lyme disease. This was not merely one line item in the mailer, it was the whole point: “What can a president do about Lyme disease?” asks the cover side, with the interior calling it a “massive epidemic threatening Virginia.” Virginia had 9.3 cases per 100,000 people in 2011, just above the national average of 7.8. Needless to say, this is an addition to the campaign agenda, and I’d wager an addition to campaign agendas in general going back a long, long time, and maybe forever. George Bush declared a Lyme Disease Awareness Week back in the summer of 1990, which is probably the closest it’s ever come to being a campaign issue.

The Romney mailer suggests a few ways that Romney will end the scourge of Lyme disease. First, “improve synergy.” Sure, sounds good. Second, “increase awareness.” This mailer sure has him off to a good start! Finally, “support treatment.” The interior of the mailer makes clear that supporting treatment is primarily about tort reform, because doctors who might get sued for malpractice can’t effectively treat Lyme disease. A friend suggested to me that this is really the point of this weird strategy, but I’m skeptical. The GOP desire for tort award caps is not something that is sublimated in any way — they’re open about it and they talk about it a lot. So why put out this odd mailer where tort reform is buried in one phrase of an interior bullet point, if tort reform is the point?

Simon van Zuylen-Wood, guest-blogging at Political Animal, had the same initial reaction I did: it’s about dog-whistling the Christian right. First, Virginia and its evangelical governor, Bob McDonnell, have actually been pushing Lyme disease prevention for the last couple years. McDonnell put together a Lyme disease task force headed by the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, rather than, say, a scientist. Apparently Romney’s desire to “get the CDC out of the way” resonated with this guy and now they’re pals.

This narrative is based on some nice dot-connecting among all these individuals and institutions, and it’s well worth reading the whole thing. My impression, on the other hand, comes largely from following and studying fringe beliefs over the last several years, and specifically from a study I conducted last fall. This is data I presented at MAPOR last year, and will follow up this year. One of the beliefs I examined in that study was the belief that vaccines can cause autism, and unlike some other science-related beliefs (climate change, evolution), there was absolutely no effect of ideology and partisanship. There was also no effect of using partisan political media. There was, however, a significant effect of using Christian media, that positively predicted belief in the autism-causing power of vaccines. To the extent that this belief is rising up, it’s happening in a venue that has little traction in mainstream social and political discourse. This is nothing new for American fringe beliefs — when Dr. Strangelove‘s Commander Ripper expressed concern over our “precious bodily fluids,” that was a satire of contemporary fringe concerns nearly 50 years ago.

So I find myself wondering if what Romney’s doing here is trying to innovate in the domain of fringe issues, playing on a right-wing Christian health and government paranoia. For a campaign still trying to solidify its base, and desperately in need of something to change the election’s trajectory, that kind of enterprise campaigning has a lot of upside and carries little risk. If it makes the campaign look kooky and generates some laughs on the national level, so be it — people are laughing anyway.

Filed: We R in Control || 12:13, September 30 || No Comments »


Atlas derped

According to the NFL rulebook, a touchdown may be scored when your opponent has possession of the ball in your end zone, and you subsequently touch the ball. Also, if I give you a hug, your wallet is officially in my possession.

If you’re a sports fan, or if your social networks include sports fans, you probably know about what happened last night. If you don’t, the short version is that the NFL has locked out its regular referees and has been using replacement refs (from low levels of college football, high school football, and other places such as the Lingerie Football League); an astonishing display of incompetence by the replacements gave a win last night to the Seattle Seahawks, which they shouldn’t have gotten. The lockout is largely about the refs’ defined-benefit pensions, which the NFL wants to replace with defined-contribution 401(k)s, and fund at a lower level. Reports put the difference between the two sides at about $2 million per year, which sounds like a lot until you realize that the NFL has annual revenues totaling more than $9 billion. No one disputes that the NFL could afford the roughly $62,000 per team per year that it would take to close the gap.

The replacement refs have made plenty of high-profile mistakes during the first three weeks of the regular season; however, observers have noted that the league has no incentive to move in negotiations as long as viewership, ticket sales and merchandise revenue remain in place. If a tipping point were to come based on on-field performance, it would have to be a game being decided by a blown call, which is what happened last night. To their credit, ESPN — a close league partner and an organization that depends on access to league resources — minced no words and spent quite a bit of coverage last night framing the event as a debacle for the league. As it so often does, Twitter “blew up.” People are talking about quitting the NFL until the regular refs are brought back. More broadly, an enterprise that has put considerable effort into image management and control over the year — “protecting the shield” — and which made the pursuit of New Orleans Saints players and coaches involved in “Bountygate” the biggest story of the offseason, in the name of protecting the integrity of the game, has shown that image and integrity must fall in line behind union-busting.

Hall of Fame quarterback, ESPN analyst and Brigham Young University JD Steve Young summarized the situation well last night when he said that the league (and it should be noted that “the league” is really the 31 owners of the non-Green Bay franchises, not Commissioner Roger Goodell) views officiating as a commodity. So much the way they recently switched from Reebok to Nike as their uniform supplier, why should they find themselves beholden to some bunch of refs that don’t like the deal that’s on offer? After all, people follow and support the franchises, and the resources that go into maintaining those franchises (uniforms, refs, players) are just the cost of doing business. Plus, pretty everybody else has already had their pensions stripped away and replaced by the 401(k) guessing game, and not doing the same for refs is just going to distort the futures market for football officiating services. Indeed, attacking defined-benefit pensions is explicitly what the league is doing:

“From the owners’ standpoint, right now they’re funding a pension program that is a defined benefit program,” said Goodell, who was in Washington on Wednesday attending a luncheon hosted by Politico’s Playbook. “About ten percent of the country has that. Yours truly doesn’t have that. It’s something that doesn’t really exist anymore and that I think is going away steadily.”

There’s a reason that doesn’t really exist anymore, of course; it’s part of multi-decade war on labor that has ratcheted up significantly in the last few years. And while it has manifested in 2012 as a fairly broad disdain for workers, it would be ironic if a labor dispute at the high end of the income range, in a sport so often associated with a caricature of midwestern industrial labor, was what finally moved a significant chunk of public to action, or even awareness. Other than the liability for a significant injury that can be connected to shoddy officiating, the public changing the channel is the only thing that will get the NFL’s attention.

Filed: We R in Control || 8:58, September 25 || 1 Comment »


The first slide of my MAPOR presentation

I’m following up last year’s belief gap study at MAPOR this year, and analysis is still in progress, but I’ve found the thing that will open my presentation in Chicago — it’s these polls from Public Policy Polling in Ohio and North Carolina:

Who do you think deserves more credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden: Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?

OHIO All Democrats Independents Republicans
Barack Obama 63% 86% 64% 38%
Mitt Romney 6% 1% 1% 15%
Not Sure 31% 13% 36% 47%
NORTH CAROLINA All Democrats Independents Republicans
Barack Obama 63% 87% 61% 29%
Mitt Romney 6% 1% 3% 15%
Not Sure 31% 11% 36% 56%

Got that? Nearly 1 in 6 Republicans in these swing states say Mitt Romney deserves more credit than Barack Obama does for Osama bin Laden’s death. Unlike, say, the auto bailout, which Romney occasionally claims he ought to be credited for, neither Romney nor anyone else has ever said he deserves credit for this. And why would he? By any standard it’s a belief that’s totally detached from reality. And yet, there it is.

Filed: Science Is Real || 10:12, September 11 || 1 Comment »


Her likes are real, but she is not

OMG cant wait 2 have sum Kraft Anything Dressing & Welch's Fruit Snacks 4 dinner lol

Facebook’s business model, like that of Amazon, Google and myriad other network-driven companies, depends to a great extent on having good predictive algorithms for what their users will respond positively towards. Amazon uses characteristics about you and your past purchases to show you things that maybe you’ll want to buy; Google and Facebook want to show you ads that will be relevant and effective.

But with Facebook, it’s not just ads; they also use algorithms to determine what things you might want to like, what events you might be interested in, and which people you might already know. Generally, when those people come up for me, they’re people who have some connection to my family, school and work networks — I may know this person, and Facebook tells me we’ve got 12 mutual friends. Occasionally, though, I get people that I have no clear connection to, and sometimes I’ll click through to see if it’s someone I’m connected to locally or through some group.

Today I got the one seen in the screenshot to the right (names and images obscured). Who is this? It’s a young lady who apparently graduated from Lyndon High School in Lyndon, KS, in 2010; she has three Facebook friends. She has an extremely common last name, which is shared by two of her friends. Two of her friends are also part of the Lyndon High School network. Now that seems weird. Needless to say, I don’t know her. I’ve spent a total of about nine hours in the state of Kansas, and none of it in Lyndon, which is about 30 miles due south of Topeka.

But check out the things she likes: PetSmart, Honey Bunches of Oats, Seattle’s Best Coffee, etc. Everything she likes is a retail store or a consumer product in the food and beauty sectors. How many 20-year-olds do you know that have three Facebook friends and like Snausages? So I’m pretty sure this is a bot, designed to get slow-witted, 30-something men to check out how Country Time Lemonade can bring a little excitement to their lives. This is a pretty interesting tactic if that’s what it is, but you’d think a cross-promotion with a record label and a TV network would make the thing look a lot more realistic.

Filed: aka Syscrusher || 16:52, September 10 || No Comments »


Fact-checkers are stupid things

From the AP’s fact-check of Bill Clinton’s DNC speech:

CLINTON: “Their campaign pollster said, ‘We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.’ Now that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the ad.”

THE FACTS: Clinton, who famously finger-wagged a denial on national television about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and was subsequently impeached in the House on a perjury charge, has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” Clinton told television viewers. Later, after he was forced to testify to a grand jury, Clinton said his statements were “legally accurate” but also allowed that he “misled people, including even my wife.”

Clinton lied about something unrelated 14 years ago, so therefore his claim that Romney is lying now is false, because balance.

Filed: Watching the Detectives || 10:47, September 6 || No Comments »