Publication Bias – And A Pact Between You and Me

In retrospect, the vote for Obama did not reflect, as some supposed, the advent of a permanent Democratic majority.  Some studies had suggested that demographic changes would lead to increasing conservative irrelevance. The Elephant was growing smaller by the day, and the Donkey ever larger.

Of course, after Bush’s re-election in 2004, it was conservatives themselves who were touting (and Karl Rove was attempting to orchestrate) a permanent conservative majority.  But the tide began to change as the Bush administration was increasingly bogged down in the Iraq war, and was perceived to have fumbled Katrina.  In 2002, 43% of the American public identified or leaned Republican, and an even 43% identified or leaned towards Democratic. This was in contrast to the twentieth century generally, when the Democrats held a sizable advantage in party affiliation.  By 2007, however, 50% affiliated with the Democrats and only 35% with Republicans. Coupled with the growing Hispanic population, and higher rates of Democratic affiliation amongst the young, things certainly appeared grim for the Republicans.

Now, those who heralded our “nationwide left turn,” led by independents, look about as silly as the Republicans who heralded a permanent Republican majority.  Obama had his own Katrina moment in the Deepwater Horizon spill, and his management of the economic crisis is under severe criticism. The Democrats are poised for a defeat of historic proportions.  Now we see articles with names like, “‘Permanent Democratic Majority’ Begins to Unravel,” and party affiliation is about equal again, or slightly favors Republicans.  And the young may grow more conservative as they age, and blacks and Hispanics may grow more conservative as they gain more and more of the American dream — and have more to lose from change.

There’s nothing underhanded in seeking permanent majority status.  If you believe in your party’s principles, it’s natural to want to see those principles put into action over the long term.

But why are we prone to such overstatements?  Presumably wishful thinking is part of it.  Poor interpretations of data.  And then there’s what I like to call the Publication Bias.  Whether it’s newspapers or periodicals or academic journals, you learn eventually that they’re more likely to publish you if you make dramatic claims.  The problem is endemic to academia.  Strong, careful, well-reasoned articles are less likely to get attention, if they do not much depart from arguments that have been made before.  Especially when it comes to media attention, new, innovative, cutting-edge, sensationalized theories are far more likely to be published, or to receive lurid coverage in the popular magazines, even if they are almost certainly wrong.  And there is a certain value to pushing the boundaries.  But when you can write more popular dissertations and books and help your career more by making spectacular claims, then there is an inevitable drift away from solid, well-grounded but well-known theories, and academic consensus can wander around from one fashionable theory to another.  When it comes to the Bible, for instance, you gain nothing by saying the Bible is simply what the Church has always believed it is, but you gain a lot by proposing more and more ingenious theories of multiple authors and multiple layers of editing.

There’s a similar pressure in blogging and publishing articles and columns on politics.  If you write at a major newspaper or website, then you don’t need to promote your articles.  The audience comes to you.  But if you need to rally your own audience, you need other websites that will promote your writing with links.

And here’s the problem: Promotion is partisan.  If you write a neutral, balanced piece, one that does not tell one side or the other what it wants to hear, then who is going to promote the piece?  How are you going to get the links at the major blogs and websites?  It can be done, but it’s tough.  And you face the same problem in other media.  I have only been interviewed on the radio a few times now, but I felt, on both occasions, an unspoken pressure (from myself!) to speak in dramatic terms, simply in order to make for interesting radio.  Same thing when I was interviewed, back in my gymnastics days, for television.

I hope that those who read this blog will hold me accountable.  I don’t conceal the fact that my political sensibilities are generally conservative.  However, if you ever believe that I’m saying something just to be dramatic, or just to tell one audience what it wants to hear, or just to get links at the big conservative blogs, you are welcome to let me know.

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  • Jim

    True. The 2008 election was Pro-Obama (change) as evidenced by minorities and youth turning out for him and anti-Bush (the public tiring of two wars and a Republican advocating higher deficits and spending. It was certainly not a Pro-Democratic party election. It could be clearly seen at the time. I make no bones that I am conservative and want the Republican party to do well next week. However, much of the undercurrent pulling toward change is driven by economic uncertainty and not ideology.

  • Just read “The Tea Started Brewing Under Bush”. Liked it so much I added you to my “Blog List”. I am a card carrying member of a Tea Party. I am a simple person but not a simpleton. I am a conservative but not a Republican. I am independent minded but not an Independent. Yes, I started boiling during the Bush II years and I will continue to boil until the size of the federal bureaucracy is reduced. My country is to protect me from foreign invasion, not protect me from myself. I could go on and tell you why I don’t need pubic schools because because we home school. I could go on and tell you I don’t need the United States Postal Service because I have the internet and UPS. I could go on and tell you why I don’t need all sorts of other government agencies. But I’m not. I’m going to bed and get up in the morning and read your blog.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Excellent. Thanks for letting me know!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      This is great, Papa Buckland. Thanks for leaving a note!

  • Hello thanks for yet another nice and good post. Where do you get your inspiration for all this :|? – Tandarts

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m not sure if this is a real comment or spam, but just in case it’s a real comment, I don’t want to leave it unanswered. I wake up most days and have no idea what I will write about. But I read through the news each morning, and some commentary, and it usually brings to mind some issue that I’ve wanted to explore a little further. Thanks for asking.