Before I get to the meat of today’s matter let me show you this donut:
Now, let’s say you were jonesing for some of my donut and I offered you the piece labeled ‘1’. You’d probably think I was joking, kind of a dick, or just extremely hungry. If I offered you ‘2’ you’d probably think I was a little bit more reasonable (though still kind of stingy, especially if you were my girlfriend).
Ok – to the meat:
About a month ago Yale Professor Dan Kahan blogged about an analysis he did looking at whether people have more or less science comprehension depending on whether they were Republican or Democrat, Tea Party or not etc. He wanted to know because he’s in the camp that believes that it doesn’t matter.
Among other things, he found that Tea Partiers on average had slightly better science comprehension than non-Tea Party people. Now, what’s really important to keep in mind is that in a research study the difference between two groups can pass the statistical test, but if that difference is really really small, it probably doesn’t mean a lot.
Let me bring the donut back in:
Let’s say the entire donut represented all the stuff out there that explains science comprehension. Based on Kahan’s data, that tiny crumb represents how much Tea party affiliation matters as far as science comprehension is concerned. Just as a reference, the larger piece is how much a college education matters.
Kahan was a little surprised that Tea Party affiliation kind of had the opposite effect he expected, though he pointed out a few times how “trivial” it kind of is.
This is what the media, especially the conservative media, took away from all of this:
Glen Beck exclaimed “YALE RESEARCHER REALIZES THE TEA PARTY IS A LOT SMARTER THAN HE THOUGHT”!!
Campus Reform (in 72pt font) “TEA PARTY MEMBERS ARE MORE SCIENTIFICALLY LITERATE THAN NON-TEA PARTY MEMBERS”!!!
And I’m sad to say even Politico fell for it “EUREKA! TEA PARTIERS KNOW SCIENCE”!!
The other amusing (and kind of sad) thing is that on average, the general population is pretty mediocre at science comprehension. So if Tea Party affiliation is only a tiny bit better, well, that’s like going on Facebook or Twitter and proclaiming
“I WON 6TH PLACE!!”
or if you’re a comedian
“WHAT AN AWESOME NIGHT!! I KIND OF DIDN’T BOMB AND THE AUDIENCE CHUCKLED, A LITTLE!!”
So the real headline, I think, should read something like:
“TEA PARTIERS ARE A TEENY WEENY BIT BETTER THAN TOTALLY MEDIOCRE AT SCIENCE COMPREHENSION! SHOULD YOU GIVE A SHIT? PROBABLY NOT!”
I think the next study for Kahan is obvious – look at reporters, especially conservative commentators, and reading comprehension. I’m sure he’d get statistical significance, and the effect would take up more than half the donut…
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