May 2018 Amherst Bulletin Column: Media Literacy and Data

May 2018 Column: Media Literacy and Data

                        Successful civic engagement requires the ability to understand media.  Among provisions of the civics education bill I worked on this year is a requirement for media literacy learning, a provision added by our neighboring senator and my fellow millennial Eric Lesser.

            Last fall I saw an interesting graph from the Yale and George Mason climate change communication programs. It had two bars: the percent of voters supporting U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Agreement was 76%, and the percent of voters opposing U.S. withdrawal from the agreement was 63%. The idea was to show that a strong majority of U.S. voters support climate action, but I noticed something else. How can 13% of Americans simultaneously support our country’s being in the Paris agreement and withdrawing from the Paris agreement?

            This speaks to several fundamental problems with data, and particularly the use of data in politics. I have noted that “communication is everything in politics,” but communication – or more specifically, messaging – is everything in survey data as well. Depending on how you ask people about something, you can get the poll results you want or expect.

            If you look in more depth at the data of those 13% of Americans who are contradicting themselves, you find that the bulk of them are Republicans. Presumably guided by party loyalty to President Trump, or messaging put out by the Trump Administration, they have the right idea when it comes to substance (they support the Paris agreement), but they also support Trump and therefore his plan to withdraw form the Paris agreement.

            A fundamental flaw of today’s political culture is that we judge ideas based on who they come from, not based on whether they are logical, beneficial, scientific, or correct. Part of the problem with the current extreme party polarization is that each side has learned to automatically oppose any idea put forward by the other side. For example, when President Obama took some essentially Republican ideas and incorporated them into the healthcare bill in 2009 and 2010, the Tea Party vigorously opposed them because the ideas were coming from Obama.

            In fact, there’s a rather sad video online where someone goes around interviewing people about whether they support “Obamacare” or support “the Affordable Care Act.” Most people either prefer “the Affordable Care Act” because of the name or because they don’t like Obama, or prefer “Obamacare” because they like Obama. Of course, Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are two names for the same bill.

            Part of the problem is that we aren’t great at filtering data when we present it. I recently saw a graph at an academic presentation comparing the relative cost of several options. Three of the bars were about a quarter of the height of the other two, implying a huge cost difference. Only people trained to be critical consumers of data, as Sen. Lesser’s provisions would guarantee, would notice that the y-axis ranged from 9 cents to 10.1 cents – there was virtually no difference between the options!

            The internet has only compounded these problems. With access to seemingly endless amounts of data from both reliable and unreliable sources, all presented as “fact,” even folks who try to be careful and objective may have a hard time tracking down the truth. And with the levels of connection and instant communication that characterize social media, 24-hour news, and globalization generally, any little story or statement can get picked up immediately and spread through the consciousness of millions of people. This blows things out of proportion: for instance, we focus more attention on mass shootings that kill 10-60 people than on “routine” gun violence that kills thousands every year.

            All this comes down to a lack of a sense of perspective. I doubt any government system has ever truly lived up to totally objective decision-making, but the current U.S. culture marks a low point.

            I attended UMass commencement this month, and was inspired by the guest speaker Jake Tapper, who addressed some of these issues. His advice to the graduates was to seek out differing points of view and varying sources of news and ideas, not to get stuck in our silos. I echo that advice - we should be more accepting of various ideas, regardless of who they come from, and set more stock by science and data. With more perspective in our country’s general mentality we might find more in our policymaking. With that perspective, we could find more agreement and be more productive in government systems.

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Photo and book images by Violet Kitchen, Picturing Policy posts by Violet Kitchen and Kaley Davis.