Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Polar opposites

A new study out of Michigan State University has confirmed what a lot of us sensed all along: the polarization between the Right and the Left in the United States is about as bad as it's ever been.

Zachary P. Neal, a professor of psychology at MSU, did a statistical analysis of bill sponsorship and support from members of Congress, from the 1970s to the present:
Claims that the United States Congress is (becoming more) polarized are widespread, but what is polarization?  In this paper, I draw on notions of intergroup relations to distinguish two forms.  Weak polarization occurs when relations between the polarized groups are merely absent, while strong polarization occurs when the relations between the polarized groups are negative.  I apply the Stochastic Degree Sequence Model to data on bill co-sponsorship in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, from 1973 (93rd session) to 2016 (114th session) to infer a series of signed networks of political relationships among legislators, which I then use to answer two research questions.  First, can the widely reported finding of increasing weak polarization in the U.S. Congress be replicated when using a statistical model to make inferences about when positive political relations exist?  Second, is the (increasing) polarization observed in the U.S. Congress only weak polarization, or is it strong polarization?  I find that both chambers exhibit both weak and strong polarization, that both forms are increasing, and that they are structured by political party affiliation.  However, I also find these trends are unrelated to which party holds the majority in a chamber.
The last sentence is, I think, the most important.  It's easy for liberals to point fingers at conservatives (and vice versa) and lay the entire blame for polarization at the opposition's feet.  The truth, predictably, is more complex than that.  "In truth," Neal said, in a press release from MSU, "the only thing that is bipartisan in Congress is the trend toward greater polarization."

These results are discouraging, to say the least.  "What I’ve found is that polarization has been steadily getting worse since the early 1970s," Neal said.  "Today, we’ve hit the ceiling on polarization.  At these levels, it will be difficult to make any progress on social or economic policies...  We’re seeing lots of animosity in politics.  Although bills do occasionally get passed, they don’t stick around long enough, or never get fully implemented, and therefore don’t have lasting impact.  This kind of partisanship means that our democracy has reached a kind of stalemate."

[Image is in the Public Domain]

Neal doesn't look at cause (except the fact that the blame can't clearly be assigned to one party).  But I wonder how much of this is exacerbated by the rise of talk radio and partisan news channels.  When the goal becomes getting viewers (or listeners, or clicks), not accuracy and fairness, there's an incentive to play to people's basest motives -- fear, tribalism, resentment, retribution.  If you look at the rhetoric from people like Tucker Carlson (on the Right) and Ted Rall (on the Left) you'll find they do business with the same currency -- whipping up the righteous indignation of the people who already agreed with them.  It no longer depends on looking at the evidence in a dispassionate fashion, it has become instead a contest to see who can be the most outrageous and incendiary.

That, after all, keeps people watching, listening, and clicking, which pays sponsors -- who pay the commentators.

Until there's more of an incentive to report and analyze the news fairly, it's only going to get worse, as each party does what it takes to stay in power, which means keeping the voters convinced that if they don't vote the party line, BAD STUFF WILL HAPPEN.  The result?  We've tended to elect partisan hacks who don't care about anything but their own corporate sponsors, and the whole thing comes full circle.

"The solution could be electing more centrists to Congress," Neal said.  "But that’ll be tough because centrists often don’t appeal to American voters."

So the sad truth is that we're probably in for more of the same, and things getting worse before they get better.  I can only hope that at some point, people realize that the members of the opposition party are their neighbors, coworkers, teachers in their schools, members of their churches, and they can realize that disagreement has a human face.  That, I think, is the only way this will ever change.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun one -- Hugh Ross Williamson's Historical Enigmas.  Williamson takes some of the most baffling unsolved mysteries from British history -- the Princes in the Tower, the identity of Perkin Warbeck, the Man in the Iron Mask, the murder of Amy Robsart -- and applies the tools of logic and scholarship to an analysis of the primary documents, without descending into empty speculation.  The result is an engaging read about some of the most perplexing events that England ever saw.

[If you purchase the book from Amazon using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to supporting Skeptophilia!]

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