Saturday, November 17, 2012

When Political Discourse Becomes "Science"

In his first interview since the election, Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan told reporters that he was "surprised" at the outcome. Mr. Ryan believed that the Republicans would win and win big. Was he delusional?

The polls consistently showed President Obama leading in both the national vote and swing states. Polling is a sophisticated science relying on algorithms, voting patterns, and carefully selected random sample sizes. Moreover, modern polling techniques evaluate sample bias, margin of error, and expected voter turnout. At its best, polling is precise, unbiased, and scientific. 

Yet, Mr. Ryan and many of his Republican cronies felt confident because they had their own information. Specifically, news (propaganda) from GOP friendly sources: Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, and the Republican fronted pollster Rasmussen Reports. In short, Mr. Ryan and the Republicans began to believe their own spin.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ryan's alternate reality is a symptom of two larger problems: 

1. The polarization of the news. On both sides of the political spectrum, people interested in politics increasingly view news through the prism of the a partisan media that dominate cable news, talk radio, and the blogosphere. Before cable and the Internet, most people got their news through national media that sought to appeal to audiences spanning the partisan divide. Today, we watch news to reinforces our political beliefs, and not for information; and

2. The politicization of science. Politicians are increasingly preaching their own version of science to push a political agenda. For example, Republicans discount global warming as politically motivated, evolution as merely a "theory," and unfriendly polling data as another indication of liberal bias. Some Republicans have even stated that pregnancy cannot occur with a "legitimate" rape, and pregnancy resulting from rape is something "God intended." Science is becoming a tool for political debate. 

Luckily, Mr. Ryan lost the election, and the Republicans suffered a setback. The real election surprise wasn't the Republican defeat, but rather Republican overconfidence and bravado.

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