Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Understanding other religions: Of perceptual filters and cognitive biases

Matt Nisbet has an excellent post up at Age of Engagement, explaining some of the findings in this week's Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.  His argument is that "atheists are [not] smarter or superior to other groups, but instead, the social climate in the United States encourages and motivates atheists to acquire higher levels of religious knowledge."

And I think Nisbet's analysis is right on target. Communication research has long studied cognitive tuning effects, i.e., more careful information processing and potentially learning among individuals (or minority groups) who anticipate their viewpoints to be challenged in discussions with others:

"In this process, individuals try to make sense of information—especially contradictory or incomplete information ... —to be able to better describe the information to others or perhaps to defend it during future discussions." (Scheufele, 2002).
In addition to these more social-level interpretations, however, there may be a second explanation for some of the Pew findings, rooted in cognitive psychology. In a recent article in Cognition, for instance, Colzato et al. show that religious practice can have  a measurable and and long-lasting impact on attentional processes. And many of their findings show distinct differences across denominations and between religious and secular respondents.

On the one hand, this line of work provides an interesting explanation for the role that religion plays as a "perceptual filter" (e.g., Brossard et al., 2008), i.e., the idea that there are distinct differences between highly-knowledgeable religious and non-religious audiences with respect to how they translate what they know into particular issue stances. More directly related to the Pew findings, however, are the direct impacts that Colzato et al. suggest different religious beliefs can have on perceptual biases:
"'Even a rather abstract bias ... is likely to cause diverging perceptions, interpretations and, eventually, conclusions. Very likely, this divergence stands in the way of effective communication between people with different religious background.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

NRC: Mass Communications at UW ranked among the very top programs in the nation

UW's Mass Communications Ph.D. degree, administered jointly by the Department of Life Sciences Communication and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, is ranked among the very best in the country in the NRC doctoral rankings released today. Using a 90 confidence interval, the new rankings place Wisconsin's Mass Communications program somewhere between #1 and #6 in the nation on both Overall S-ratings (based on field-specific faculty opinions of the relative importance of the various program factors) and Research Activity ratings (based on four variables used in the overall ranking).  The University of Pennsylvania and Stanford were the only other communication programs whose range in both of these ranking categories included the #1 spot.

A few additional metrics from the NRC study highlight just how vibrant the research culture at Wisconsin really is for the field of communication.  Mass Communications faculty were almost 3 (2.72) standard deviations ahead of the average of the field in terms of the number of publications during the study period. For citations per faculty Wisconsin was 2.20 standard deviations ahead, and for the number of faculty with grants 2.17 standard deviations. 

It is important to note, of course, that these rankings are based on faculty surveys and other data collected almost five years ago, and some commentators described the data released today as stale.  In fact, Inside Higher Ed went so far as to suggest that even the NRC committee responsible for the rankings were no longer willing to endorse them:

"The advance briefing for reporters covering today's release ... may have made history as the first time a group doing rankings held a news conference at which it seemed to be largely trying to write them off.

While the NRC committee that produced the rankings defended its efforts and the resulting mass of data on doctoral programs now available, no one on the committee endorsed the actual rankings, and committee members went out of their way to say that there might well be better ways to rank -- better than either of the two methods unveiled."

Click here for the full set of NRC data and documentation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The global importance of closing gender gaps .... including one at Harvard

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof gave an excellent talk here at the Kennedy School tonight on the importance of closing gender gaps in the developing world.

One of his premises: Identifying excellence in every single demographic is a necessity rather than luxury, especially for developing countries who try to succeed in increasingly competitive global markets.  And females, Kristof argues, are one of the least tapped demographics globally.  To make his point, he borrowed a statement that Microsoft chairman Bill Gates had made at a business seminar in Saudi Arabia back in 2007 -- to a room with segregated seating for men and women. And it directly addressed the men:
"[I]f you're not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you're not going to get too close to the top."
Gates's observation, of course, is one that even the most cynical economists cannot argue with: If there is a certain probability of finding excellence in any given stratum, any underrepresentation from that stratum undermines excellence.

The notion of tapping the best and brightest in every demographic, however, also raises an interesting conundrum at Harvard -- and one that was not raised during the talk and the Q&A tonight.  Last week, the Council of Graduate Schools released a report showing that -- for the first time ever-- more women in the U.S. had received Ph.D.s in the 2008-09 academic year than men.  The important factoid related to tonight's talk: Harvard lags almost 10 percentage points behind the U.S. national average in that category.  The tricky part with problems closest to home is that sometimes they can be the least obvious ones.

Answers to unanswerable questions? Q&A with Age of Engagement

Here are a few excerpts from a Q&A I did with frequent collaborator Matt Nisbet over at Big Think's Age of Engagement. It deals with the need for communication researchers (and social scientists more broadly) to grapple with the big, sloppy and potentially unanswerable questions of our time.  And of course there is no magic bullet and potentially not even a solution on the near horizon for many of these questions. But vanishing voters, an emerging class system of illiterate and literate publics, and the increasingly politicized debates surrounding emerging technologies highlight the urgency for us to get our hands dirty.
What are the hot topics and trends in political communication research today?
Most recent trends in political communication research have been dictated by the tectonic shifts in how politics is communicated and the issues that we as a society are facing. What used to be the “mass” in mass communication, for instance, has morphed into different publics that generate, exchange, and use content in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago. And with global warming, synthetic biology or stem cell research, we have seen issues move to the forefront of political discourse that have the potential to bring long-term and far-reaching changes for almost all aspects of people’s daily lives.

Last year there was a proposal to cut funding for research in political science.  It prompted a debate over whether the type of political communication studies dominating the journals had lost sight of the "big questions" facing the contemporary media and political system.  What is your view on this debate?

Many of the big questions that we face as a society – energy independence, global warming, or an increasingly polarized electorate – require answers that transcend the boundaries of a single field or discipline. This is particularly challenging for a young field, such as political communication, that continues to struggle with its identity and its desire to compete on an even playing field with much larger disciplines, such as psychology and political science. And if we are not careful, we may follow these disciplines down some dead ends.
A good example is the debate surrounding Republican Senator Tom Coburn’s proposal in October 2009 to prohibit the National Science Foundation from “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects.” Coburn, of course, used the label “political science” but targeted social science much more broadly. And his comments rekindled an old debate among political scientists about incremental disciplinary research versus big questions. Cornell’s Peter Katzenstein summarized this intra-disciplinary dilemma best: “Graduate students discussing their field ... often speak in terms of ‘an interesting puzzle,’ a small intellectual conundrum... that tests the ingenuity of the solver, rather than the large, sloppy and unmanageable problems that occur in real life.” Interestingly, President Obama has prioritized the search for answers to many of these supposedly sloppy, unmanageable problems, ranging from mandates for a green economy, to climate change, stem cell research and global warming.  All of these issues relate to the increasingly blurring lines between science, politics, society – and of course, political communication. These are the same areas where most societal debates of the next 50 years will take place. And unless we as political communication researchers and educators find a way to make both scholarly and public contributions to these conversations, we will increasingly be marginalized as a discipline.

In recent years, you've applied expertise in political communication research to look at questions at the intersection of science and society such as nanotechnology.  What are you finding about how the public reaches judgments and forms opinions about controversial areas of science?
Nanotechnology is one of the most interesting emerging technologies we have seen in a while, and one with implications for almost any area of political communication. The U.S. and China are in the middle of a race for global leadership in research productivity and patenting. At the same time, the over 1,000 products that are already on the consumer end market have raised questions about lagging regulatory frameworks and consumer protection. And some of these policy debates are beginning to trickle down to mainstream news outlets, amplified by various interest groups and other players in the policy arena.  Our most recent research is tapping some of these dynamics, and particularly the resulting dangers of creating widening gaps between educational elites and less informed citizens with respect to grasping and capitalizing on the benefits of this new technology early on.
 The full Q&A can be found here.

Talk at BU: "From Stem Cell to Nanotechnology: The ‘Science’ of Communicating Controversial Science?"

On October 21, 2010 (3:30-4:40pm) I will be giving a talk in the Communication Research Canter talk series at Boston University's College of Communication, dealing with some of our most recent research on communicating controversial science at the intersection of bench, policy, and public opinion at UW-Madison.

This talk will also draw on some of the work I am doing this semester as a vising fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.)

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

New JoNR article: Seeing the intrinsic value of modern science ... and why it matters for policy choices

I have argued before that an innate belief in the value of empirical science among lay publics is critical for the long-term health of the scientific endeavor. And by that I do not mean blind public buy-in to emerging technologies or their applications. Instead, I am referring to a concept that my colleague Dominique Brossard at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has called deference toward scientific authority.

She has argued very convincingly for a while now that modern science requires a long-term commitment to science by the general public.  Science is not any different from other institutions, such as law enforcement or the Supreme Court, that may suffer from short-term fluctuations in trust, triggered by accusations of racial profiling or allegedly partisan rulings. Trust in science, in other words, is mostly situational rather than predispositional.  And the climate change or oil spills of today will be replaced by a different scientific debate tomorrow. The real danger for scientists, therefore, lies less in fluctuating levels of trust than in long-term declines in deference toward scientific authority, i.e., the belief in the inherent benefit from science for society at large.

The most recent analyses of some of our CNS-ASU's national survey data (led by Prof. Shirley Ho at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University) provide very powerful support for the importance of building long-term, predispositional support for science among U.S. publics. A new article in Journal of Nanoparticle Research (posted as an online-first version today) shows that deference toward scientific authority remained one of the most powerful predictors of people's willingness to support public spending on nanotechnology, even after controlling for other long-terms traits and variables, such as lay publics' levels of religious guidance, trust in scientists, and willingness to process new information.

All of this, of course, further underlines the importance of K-12 education and informal science education, both of which are likely to have a tremendous impact on the importance that lay publics attribute to modern science as a foundation of U.S. economic growth and global competitiveness.  The potential of K-12 to promote science, therefore, may be less a function of conveying cutting-edge scientific findings, especially since the knowledge many of us acquired in high-school or even college-level science classes is long outdated. Instead, K-12 and informal science education is much more about cultivating the belief in modern science and scientific principles as a prerequisite for the long-term economic health of this country.