Monthly Archives: October 2014

radical voters?

Two Berkeley graduate students, David E. Broockman and Douglas J. Ahler have conducted research that is already influential enough to become the subject of a column by Thomas B. Edsall in the New York Times. Based on their own large survey of Americans, Broockman and Ahler argue against the widespread premise that voters are more moderate than elected officials are. Instead, they argue, many voters hold ideologically inconsistent preferences. For example, someone may strongly oppose abortion (generally seen as a conservative stance) while favoring single-payer health insurance (coded as liberal). If you average that person’s preferences, she looks moderate, but she actually favors policies both too liberal and too conservative to get through Congress. Thus, if politicians shift to more moderate policies (e.g., partial restrictions on abortion and a mixed health care system, like the ACA) they will not increase their support. The unpopularity of Congress reflects its failure to satisfy a population that holds diverse, unpredictable, and often “radical” views:

Contrary to the conventional wisdom rooted in the ideological perspective, most citizens do not seem to wish the Senate were composed of 100 Olympia Snowes and Max Baucuses, the noted Senate moderates. But this does not mean that Americans are satisfied with the politicians who represent them either. Rather, because each citizen’s pattern of views across issues appears unique, each citizen is likely to be “disconnected” from the positions their representatives take in his or her own way, a situation which the election of more moderates—or more of any other one particular kind of politician—could not broadly resolve.

I would argue that ideological consistency is a problematic concept. It is highly debatable whether any given position on abortion or foreign policy fits better with a favorable or critical stance toward welfare programs. In a multiparty democracy, we would see a menu of many ideologies that could not all be arrayed on a single scale. For instance, we would probably have a viable libertarian party that seemed “liberal” on social issues and “conservative” on economic ones, and a statist conservative party that was willing to use instruments like welfare to strengthen traditional values. Instead, our two-party system imposes a single spectrum that does not fit the variation in individuals’ views.

I would further argue that despite all the vituperation and philosophical posturing in today’s politics, the real policy options being considered by Congress all fall within a narrow range. For instance, the party that is supposedly socialist and deaf to limits on government would actually like to raise federal spending by a couple of points of GDP, at most. And the party that regards freedom as threatened by runaway government would really like to trim federal spending by a couple of points. Many perfectly reasonable policy ideas are considered untouchable in Congress.

As one of their methods, Broockman and Ahler show people seven options on each policy topic that ostensibly range from radically liberal to radically conservative (or vice-versa; they randomize the order). Thus to pick the first or the last choice shows that you are radical. But these are some of the ideas that they code as falling at an extreme end of the spectrum:

  • The government should institute a carbon tax or cap and trade system that would significantly decrease US carbon emissions over the next several decades
  • The United States should move to a system like Great Britain’s, where the government employs doctors instead of private companies and all Americans are entitled to visit government doctors in government hospitals free of charge.
  • The United States should have open borders and allow further immigration on an unlimited basis.
  • The education system should be fully privatized, with government playing no role in paying for families’ education expenses. However, private school tuition should be tax deductible.
  • Social security should be abolished entirely or made semi-voluntary, with the government potentially providing incentives for retirement saving but not managing individuals retirement funds.

These are indeed ideas that aren’t going anywhere in Congress (although the first one passed the House in 2009.) But they are also ideas that have intelligent proponents, that we would encourage students to debate, and that we might expect to be seriously considered in our legislatures.

In short, I don’t think the problem is that voters are “radical.” I wouldn’t want to see them become more “moderate,” if that meant that they entertained even fewer policy options or always preferred candidates who fell at the center of a simplistic left/right spectrum. I think Americans display a reasonable heterogeneity of views (although I abhor some of the popular ideas), and the main problem is our political process, which seriously considers only a narrow range of options and places them all on a simplistic left/right spectrum.

[See also “if the goal is civility, moderation may be the problem, not the solution“; ideology: pros and cons“]

CIRCLE resources on the election

As we approach the 2014 Election, CIRCLE at Tisch College has a wealth of relevant information. Our 2014 Election Center is the go-to place for data in the form of interactive maps and trends. In addition, we have recently released five more specialized studies:

Stay tuned for rapid analysis on Election Night, the day after, and beyond.

the monumental task that confronts a high-stakes testing state

Let’s say you don’t especially trust teachers to assess their own students, because their ratings can be inconsistent and biased. So you want to use validated and standardized assessments to evaluate students, schools, and teachers. Let’s say, furthermore, that your state authorizes about 4,000 different courses, from kindergarten through 12th grade. (A subject like science in 3rd grade counts as a “course,” by the way.) Each course encompasses many different content areas; for instance, an American history course covers the Revolution, the Civil War, civil rights, and so on. For each topic in each course, you need assessment “items” (questions or prompts of various kinds). You need more than a few items for each topic; one question does not yield a valid score. You can’t repeat items without allowing kids to cheat by looking at old tests. And you will be testing frequently–more than once per year in each course if you consider the need for make-up tests and practice tests.

The upshot is that you will need at least several hundred thousand assessment items to make the whole system work. See Florida’s Race to the Top Assessments page for some of the documents on which my estimate is based. Thus …

  1. You face an expensive undertaking, and if you skimp, you will get poor items, written by people who are not sophisticated about the content or well trained in writing assessments. Pilot-testing items costs even more money.
  2. Even if you spend enough money, writing several hundred thousand items is a human enterprise. Error is inevitable. Some proportion of your items will be flatly incorrect or invalid in other ways. Many will be too easy or too hard, or inadequate to assess the desired skills and knowledge.

On its own, this is not an argument against high-stakes testing. The best argument in favor is that measuring pretty well is better than not measuring at all. But the cost and frailty of the whole system must certainly be taken into consideration. After all, the power of the state stands behind these assessments. If a kid cannot move on to 8th grade, or if a teacher loses his job because of test scores, that is a state decision. I think people may reasonably view it as almost a juridical process.

In the corporate context, employers are always assessing employees, and vice-versa. It is not OK if an employer’s assessments are biased or arbitrary, but using standardized measures may at least reduce inevitable bias, and the market does offer a theoretical solution to injustice (the employee finds a different job). In contrast, if a state moves from not making high-stakes assessments at all to doing so badly, it’s like imposing a new juridical regime that makes arbitrary decisions. I see a serious threat to justice.

job openings in civic renewal (8)

This is the eighth in a series of occasional posts with lists of open positions.

Executive Director, Engaged Cornell. A groundbreaking, $150 million, 10-year initiative to establish community engagement and real-world learning experiences as the hallmark of the Cornell undergraduate experience, Engaged Cornell was launched on October 6. A goal of the initiative is to empower Cornell students to become active citizens and to tackle critical challenges by participating in hands-on, practical learning experiences in communities at home and around the world. Engaged Cornell will create a new model and direction for higher education – one in which public engagement is deeply ingrained, fully institutionalized and effectively taught and implemented. (Job description.)

Director of the Swearer Center for Public Service and Associate Dean for Engaged Scholarship, Brown University. The University seeks an experienced administrator to provide leadership, strategic direction, and management of one of the oldest public service centers housed in a university. The Swearer Center leads Brown University initiatives that integrate teaching, learning, and practice in order to advance scholarship and to produce a public benefit. (Job description.)

Charles Stewart Mott Foundation Chair on Community Foundations, IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) The chair is expected to teach and mentor students at the doctoral, masters and undergraduate levels for 50% of their time.  The LFSoP offers an inter-disciplinary degree in philanthropic studies that attracts diverse students interested in broad issues related to philanthropy, including nonprofit organizations, social movements, grassroots associations, foundations, giving and volunteering. For the other 50% of their time the chair is expected to conduct research, publish in the field, and provide service to the School, campus, and the field.  (Job description.)

Associate Director and Research Associate, the Center for Public and Nonprofit Management at the School of Public Administration at the University of Central Florida  (Job descriptions.)

Assistant Director of UCARE – the Ursinus Center for Advocacy, Responsibility, and Engagement – at Ursinus College. Responsibilities include managing relations with community partners, guiding a team of students to arrange and coordinate service opportunities, and recruiting students to participate in UCARE initiatives. The Assistant Director will also assist in managing the Ursinus Bonner Leader Program as its program coordinator. In general, this individual will help to promote a greater campus culture of civic engagement and will work closely with students to develop their civic leadership skills. (Job description.)

Executive Director, Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP). The FCCP exists to promote civic participation as a key  to making our democracy work. We serve leaders in the philanthropic community working to  further this vision with heightened attention to issues of equity and historically disenfranchised and underrepresented communities. Our members support non-partisan efforts to engage voters, eliminate structural barriers to voting, advance reforms to improve government and electoral systems, and inspire public involvement in civic life. (Job description)

Assistant Professor (tenure track) in The Department of Public and Community Service Studies at Providence College. The first interdisciplinary major of its kind in the United States, since 1994 the Public and Community Service Department has partnered with nearby communities and organizations in the City of Providence. We seek applicants from any related discipline whose teaching, scholarship and community engagement speak to pressing issues of our partnerships, and our guidelines for tenure and promotion fully incorporate public scholarship and engagement. Examples of desired issue focus are: development of social capital in urban communities; schools, poverty, and mass incarceration; violence, trauma and resilience; urban entrepreneurship; and urban social movements. Providence College is institutionally committed to the nearby Smith Hill neighborhood. Recent initiatives include a large grant to the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation to create affordable housing, the opening of the Smith Hill/Providence College Annex, and a campus-community collaborative café, Common Grounds. (job description)

what the Facebook mood experiment says about current research ethics

(Washington, DC) Our ethical rules and procedures now badly fit the actual practices of research–burdening some inquiries that should be treated as free while allowing other studies to do real damage without any oversight at all. The Facebook “mood experiment” exemplifies these problems.

The case is well known, but I will summarize: Advised by a small group of academic researchers, including Cornell professor Jeffrey Hancock, Facebook experimented by changing the algorithms that select posts for users’ newsfeeds so that some users saw more happy material, and others saw more sad material, than they would have seen otherwise. It turned out that seeing happy stories led people to post more happy content of their own (contrary to some previous findings that happy news makes us feel resentful). The Cornell University Institutional Review Board (IRB), which is charged with pre-reviewing “research,” did not review this study because the professors were deemed to be insufficiently involved, e.g., they would not see the users’ data. Hancock et al. published the results, prompting an international outcry. Both the scholars and Facebook were denounced (and the former even threatened) for manipulating emotions without consent or disclosure.

I believe that the scholars were involved in “research” and so should have been reviewed by Cornell’s IRB. Given current principles of research ethics (as I understand them), the IRB should have required more disclosure and consent than Facebook actually provided. (But see a contrary argument here.) The key point is that users were influenced by the experimental manipulation—to a very small degree, but the magnitude of the impact could not be known in advance and was not actually zero. People were affected without being asked to participate or even told afterward what had been done to them. The scholars should have made sure that research subjects gave consent. Otherwise, they should have dropped their association with Facebook.

But I also believe that current IRB rules and procedures now poorly fit the realities of research.

On one hand, I am concerned about some over-regulation by IRBs. I start with the presumption that when we ask adults questions or observe them and publish our thoughts, that is an exercise of free speech protected by the First Amendment. IRB review of a research study that involves asking questions seems akin to prior censorship of a newspaper. In both cases, the writer could violate rights or laws, but then the affected parties should seek legal remedies. The IRB should not pre-review research that merely involves talking to or watching adults and writing what one observes.*

I realize that academic research based on mere conversation or observation can be harmful. Consider the “super-predator” theory of violent crime, which led to terrible social policies. But the problem with that research was its conclusion, not its method. An IRB has no purview over conclusions (or premises, or ideologies). We must respond to bad ideas with counter-arguments, not with prior censorship.

By the way, I have no complaint about the actual oversight of our own very capable and efficient IRB, which approves about a dozen studies of my team each year. My point is rather an abstract, principled one about the right to ask questions and write whatever one concludes.

On the other hand, manipulating people without their consent is problematic, and that is happening constantly and pervasively in the age of Big Social Science, microtargeting, and “nudges.” When academics experiment on people, they are generally subject to prior review and tough rules. But most social experiments are not done by academics nowadays. If Hancock et al. had chosen to stay clear of the Facebook study, Facebook might well have gone ahead anyway—with no review or scrutiny whatsoever.

One might argue that professors should be regulated more than companies are, because the former receive federal support and may have tenure, which protects them even if they act badly. But I am more worried about companies than about professors, because: 1) companies also frequently receive government support; 2) they may conduct highly invasive experiments without even disclosing the results, whereas professors like to publish what they find; and 3) some companies have enormous power over customers. For example, quitting Facebook over an ethical issue would impose a steep cost in terms of missed opportunities to communicate. Networks have value proportional to the square of their users, which implies that you cannot just decline to use an incumbent network that has more than a billion users. Agreeing to its “terms and conditions” is not exactly voluntary.

Philosophically, I’d be in favor of removing IRB review of research unless the research involves tangible impact on subjects, while regulating corporate research that involves experimental manipulation so that disclosure and consent are always required. I am not sure if the latter could be done effectively, fairly, and efficiently–and I am not holding my breath for anyone even to try.

*Notes: 1) I am not arguing the IRB review is literally unconstitutional. The IRB’s legally legitimate authority flows from contracts between the university and the government and between the university and its employees. My point is that First Amendment values ought to be honored. 2) When academics pay research subjects, that creates a financial relationship that the university should probably oversee on ethical grounds. 3) I am not sure about minors. The First Amendment argument still applies when subjects are minors, yet there seems to be a case for the university’s protecting human subjects who are under 18.