Saturday, August 30, 2008

Underestimating Sarah Palin

Based on what I've read in a number of venues, I venture to say that if you support Barack Obama, you may well be underestimating Sarah Palin's potential benefits to John McCain's candidacy. Here are four reasons why:

1. Many people see this choice as a pander to Hillary voters and think it won't work. I agree that the pick won't work especially well in that way. But half of the electorate doesn't like Hillary Clinton, and a solid majority of independents don't like her. A lot of people who like the idea of seeing a prominent female politician will be very happy to see someone other than Hillary Clinton play the role.

2. Attacking Palin is going to be very dangerous. A great many people will see her primarily as an amazing woman: a dedicated mother who stands by her principles and has launched an impressive career while raising a bunch of kids. This is all accurate: I think Palin's policy positions are terrifying, but I hope the Obama people are thinking very carefully about how to respect Palin's personal accomplishments as they attack her policies. Getting the tone of this wrong will seriously rile up the right-wing base.

3. A point related to #1: I see a lot of commentary assessing potential reactions to Palin based on the opinions of college-educated women. But at least initially, men like the Palin pick better than women, and to the extent that choosing Palin involves targeting ex-Hillaryites, I'll wager the swing group is the less educated, more socially conservative, more Appalachian core. I can easily imagine people from my Appalachian hometown (where my mother has long been amazed at the resistance of Democratic women to Hillary Clinton) connecting with Palin, especially if, say, Biden says something that sounds condescending and eggheaded and dismissive about her.

4. Palin's background is in journalism, specifically broadcast journalism and more specifically sports journalism. I've only seen a couple of her TV clips, but she seems to handle that environment very well, and (unlike McCain) she should be very good at reading a teleprompter, which will be important next week.

All that said, I think such a cynical, pandering, precipitous choice should ultimately hurt McCain's chances. But if Democrats think it will be easy to dismiss Palin's appeal, they could pay dearly for the mistake.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Book review: Robert B. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

I started reading Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion after Tyler Cowen called it "one of [his] favorite social science books." I can see why: although some of Cialdini's points have become relatively commonplace since the book's initial publication in 1984, Influence still provides an engaging blend of social scientific scholarship, anecdotes of Cialdini's undercover ventures as a "compliance professional," and something like the self-help genre in Cialdini's advice on resisting each of the compliance techniques he describes under the headings reciprocation, commitment and consistency, social proof, liking, authority, and scarcity.

I'll supplement this main review post with some snapshot reactions to a few of Cialdini's points that prompted me to think of specific tangential issues. For now, two overarching thoughts:

First, this book provides a valuable counterpoint to works of behavioral psychology and economics that emphasize the internal biases that affect individual decision-making. Although those works sometimes address social factors and Cialdini sometimes touches on the classic behavioralist issues (loss aversion, endowment effects, etc.), Cialdini's focus on influence and compliance is still refreshing.

Second, the more practical side of Influence, especially the information that flows out of Cialdini's undercover work, raises issues akin to those of publicizing methods of picking door locks. Cialdini is handing out the keys to human consent. Cialdini's direct advice is almost entirely defensive--he tells the reader how to ward off the tools of compliance, not how to deploy them--but it is easy enough to imagine ways to gain influence. For one example, I am highly confident that the techniques Cialdini describes, carefully applied, could help professors positively influence students' evaluations of their courses--an extremely valuable skill. I leave the reader to consider the implications of that possibility.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

Back from a vacation week, and published on Saturday, but that lacks the alliteration I require:

I know I shouldn't link to Nate Silver every week, but I blame him for writing something irresistible every time. This time around it's the best strategic analysis I've seen of the Biden choice.

Merlin Mann on kicking ass with outcome-based thinking. I especially like the Foo for Bar formulation.

Via Very Short List, a great little accent identification game, with creepy patriarchal and colonialist undertones brought to you by Rudyard Kipling.

A good piece on humiliation, China, and the Olympics: "In 2001, the National People's Congress even passed a law proclaiming an official 'National Humiliation Day.'"

And following an impeccable pass of the baton, Errol Morris runs the anchor leg analyzing photography as a weapon.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What if classical music were popular?

In this lovely little TED lecture, Benjamin Zander aims to sell his audience on the idea that every one of them--and indeed, everyone else--secretly loves classical music and needs only a little guidance to discover that love.

Near the end of the talk, Zander says that people in the classical music business always think along these lines: two percent of people already take an active interest in this music. What can we do to raise that to three or four? Zander says that the approach should instead be to assume that everyone does love or will love classical music and to take the actions that flow from that assumption.

Zander thus evokes one of my favorite thought experiments: what if classical music (broadly defined, but of the "serious" rather than "pops" variety) became truly popular? Specifically, how would the 2% of, say, Americans who currently identify themselves with classical music react? Some, I presume, would revel in the spread of their preferences to a larger number of fellows. Many, I guess, would feel dismay at the loss of the cultural capital that we confer on exclusive forms of high culture. I would predict that this group would find ways to create new mechanisms of exclusivity: we might, for instance, see a certain kind of chamber music gain new clout, with its patrons building extremely specialized concert halls whose performances would not only be costly to attend but also impose daunting conventions of dress and behavior. If this happened, I would further predict that the devotees of this music would lament that it commanded such a small audience and suspect that, in their hearts of hearts, everyone truly has a taste for it.

Do you, reader, have a different and perhaps happier vision?

Bonus question: what has the evolution of jazz, which has frequently seen its more popular branches defined out of the category of "jazz," told us about this imagined scenario?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

Beyond overconfidence: Tyler Cowen reports on new views of ability bias

Find out why last week's ruling on executive privilege is such a big deal. This is worth understanding.

Zombies reciting haiku

Nate Silver strikes again: a lovely little contextualization of Evan Bayh's politics

San Diego Padres General Manager Paul DePodesta, on his blog of unprecedented GM transparency, runs down how trading after the deadline works in baseball

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Conclusions, part II: so what?

Can we do better than "so what"?

Last week, I posted some thoughts about teaching the art of the conclusion--that is, about explaining the elusive something more that teachers often ask their students to provide. Here I continue my search for the language and examples that will help my students write conclusions. The next and probably final installment of this series will address the journalistic kicker, a subject Michael raised in the comments last week.

Today, however, I ponder the question, "so what?" When I was a student, I saw many teachers tell students that papers should convey answers to that question. When my undergraduate thesis adviser, Patricia Meyer Spacks, received a set of term paper drafts that disappointed her, she gently explained what she was looking for and wrote on the chalkboard in dramatically ungentle four-foot letters, "SO WHAT?"

When essays do find ways to answer the question, the effects can be wonderful. Take, for example, this striking little essay by Phillip Davis about the neurological effects of reading Shakespeare. Having set up a series of problems at the beginning of the piece, Davis shares a few data points in the middle, and about two-thirds of the way in, he writes--as its own paragraph--"so what?"

Davis answers the question powerfully, with a series of insights that expand in scope until they culminate in this final paragraph:

It is early days. But I am getting a greater sense of how and why Shakespeare really does something to our inner reality, making me feel more alive in more unpredictable mental ways when I read or see his work. I am also getting a sense of an underlying shape to experience, as though the syntax in front of my eyes were keying into mental pathways behind them, and shifting and reconfiguring them dramatically in the theatre of the brain.

Yes, that will do nicely as the something more.

All this said in favor of the "so what" approach, however, I must come to an anticlimax: in my own teaching, I have not found that asking "so what?"--or suggesting that students ask it of themselves--does much good. The question may be too vague, or it may be too hard to unburden it of its commonly dismissive inflection: "Yeah, well, so what if it is?"

My current idea is to revise the "so what" approach in two ways: first by switching the language to "and what does that mean?"--with the suggestion that the best essays will find ways to answer the question multiple times. And what does that mean? And second, I want to make the function of the conclusion more concrete by saying that it releases the pain the introduction has inflicted--an approach I'll explore when I come to ponder introductions within the next week or two.

A cliffhanger!

Friday, August 01, 2008

Friday Five: Links to take you to the weekend in style

The NINES project is at the cutting edge of literary studies; here is a taste of the work it's doing to enhance digital scholarship and teaching.

Nate Silver of develops a fascinating little metric for evaluating Vice Presidential candidates' political strength

Tyler Cowen and Will Wilkinson discuss uncertainty and humility

Some of the young folk don't know about Laurie Anderson: Here's an interview to introduce them to her.

Kevin Kelly, always good for a striking insight, projects the second 5000 days of the web. I especially like the idea that we will start linking ideas rather than pages.