October 16, 2008

You Always Know Less Than Your Source, Unless It's Balenciaga

The Pew Research Center asked 3612 adults three questions:

  1. Which party controls the U.S. House of Representative?
  2. Who is the Secretary of State?
  3. Who is the Prime Minister of Great Britain?
And they found something interesting that they did not report.


18% got all three questions right; only 30% knew Gordon Brown; 50% knew "Democrats" and 42% knew "Condoleeza Rice."

But the scores according to the audience of specific news sources:

pew research politics.gif

A few observations: The New Yorker readers are college educated and older, while The Daily Show people are still in college. perhaps affecting the results.  However only 31% of Hannity & Colmes viewers are college graduates, and they scored well.  So education itself is not the explanation.

Obviously, certain shows beat you over the head with the information.  That's all Rush and the Colbert Report talk about; but they don't much mention Great Britain.  So those scores of those audiences make sense.

What doesn't makes sense-- or, unfortunately, makes too much sense-- is why CNN viewers did worse than everyone.  If CNN is objective news, all the time, what happened?


Using Lexis-Nexis, I learned that in the past month, NPR has done 14 stories containing the search words "Gordon Brown."  Fox News did 10.  CNN had 24.  "Gordon Brown" appears zero times in The New Yorker.  Clearly, there are multiple factors that go into why certain people are more knowledgeable than others, but that still leaves open the question why those who are news watchers know less? 

Why were BBC watchers no more informed on Gordon Brown than Rush's listeners?  Remember, these are Americans who chose to watch the BBC.  I'm sure it's the same nuts who always tell me, "the BBC is so much better than our news."

It's high school-- they drilled the info into you, but it never "took."  What NPR and The New Yorker and even The Daily Show do is present the information in a context (e.g. here's why Bush sucks; here's a funny setup) that is usable by the audience ("hey, here's why Bush sucks;" "dude, this is hilarious, Gordon Brown...")  That's a good way of making it stick, and it helps explain why CNN's info doesn't stick, but  it means the message is now inseparable from the media.  And this is more dangerous, because you think you possess knowledge that you do not actually possess. 

Here's an example, arbitrarily using Rush Limbaugh.  Say he is talking about something you don't know much about, like the difference between the American and  British responses to the banking crisis.  He actually explains well very complex information and the possible  consequences.  You absolutely know more than you did before you heard him, even if you disagree with his conclusions.

But if someone asks you a question about this info, your response is most likely a version of what Rush said.  But worse, you don't realize this-- you think you are intelligently coming up with the info yourself.  You are not aware that you are reading from someone else's script.

This conceit of knowledge almost always results form learning from one source-- because it is never tested by a contrasting opinion.


Balenciaga is one of the oldest (i.e. from the 1960s) French fashion houses, but it has stopped producing haut couture because, simply, it wasn't profitable.  They've turned to ready-to-wear clothes, which are still elaborate, still have complex cuts and folds, seams, still are expensive, and still are French.  It may be "off the rack," but it's still Balenciaga, and anyone who knows anything will recognize it.

But there's a willful denial in play.  The trick is claiming that you have your own unique style, yet that style is available to anyone who chooses to buy it; you had nothing at all to do with it.  I suppose it's possible to claim you're different than those Givenchy sluts, but it is merely a fantasy-- or delusion-- that your style is entirely yours-- or even barely yours.

Even a woman who buys from a thrift store puts more original thought into her wardrobe, though of course even her style is bound by someone else's sketches so many years ago.

But try telling any woman in a designer dress that, and she'll punch you right in the nose.  "Yes, someone else had the idea for this dress, and created it; but it perfectly expresses who I am.  It is, for all intents and purposes, my ideas for clothes.  Of what consequence to me is it that 5000 other women feel the same way?  I still look amazing." 


So the fact that The New Yorker readers and Rush Limbaugh listeners possess a lot of information speaks to the contextualization, the usability of their presentation of that info, and how much it resonates with the particular inclinations of the audience.  Unfortunately, it's hard to know more info than your source for that info, and if you only have one source... you don't know very much.

But ignorance-- socratic ignorance, you-know-you-don't-know ignorance, is hardly the worst thing that can happen.  No, the worst thing, in a democracy, is to think the thoughts someone else gave you-- gave 5000 other people-- prete a porter, and believe they are your own.


Does Marshall McLuhan's fam... (Below threshold)

October 16, 2008 11:18 PM | Posted by Jack Coupal: | Reply

Does Marshall McLuhan's famous phrase, The medium is the message play a role here?

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What ever happened to corre... (Below threshold)

October 17, 2008 3:07 AM | Posted by Brooks: | Reply

What ever happened to correlation not being causation? There's probably some interesting correlation between knowledge of world affairs and state of residence, but certainly you wouldn't argue that moving from one state to another is likely to affect any individual's interest in world affairs.

Plus, if they had asked "what is your primary news source," this would have been a stronger analysis. But "regular viewer" is pretty slippery. It seems to me that CNN is about where it belongs, with "personality magazines", in that it is a fairly light source of news that many people catch in passing, in bars or restaurants or whatnot.

An intersting study, and thanks for the post, but I can't really agree with the conclusion that the sources cited are necessarily responsible for the scores of their regular viewers.

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Are you sure you're not the... (Below threshold)

October 17, 2008 9:01 AM | Posted by marcia: | Reply

Are you sure you're not the Last Sociologist? This is absolutely what we learned in Sociology of Mass Communications, c. 1986.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I'd be willing to bet the audience of NPR has much different information about the three subjects than the audience of Rush Limbaugh, and I also believe NPR's listeners have a bit more knowledge and a less biased view (despite NPR being darling to us libs).

Even when people consult more than one source, the sources tend to be congruent with their belief system. A Rush listener may consult Hannity & Colmes, but is less likely to listen to Chris Mathews of Hardball. The same is true of those who lean the other way.

Where the information truly becomes interesting, and I believe this is what you're alluding to, is when you cross sources, checking both liberal and conservative viewpoints with an open mind to finding a semblance of truth somewhere in the middle.

But who's interested in truth these days?

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Balenciaga. Okay, admit it;... (Below threshold)

October 17, 2008 12:28 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Balenciaga. Okay, admit it; you've been watching Project Runway, haven't you?

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Re: "Does 'the medium is th... (Below threshold)

October 18, 2008 12:10 PM | Posted, in reply to Jack Coupal's comment, by Dann: | Reply

Re: "Does 'the medium is the message' apply here?"

No, it doesn't. The "medium is the message" means that each new medium has profound consequences simply from the fact that it's out there being used, regardless of its content. This article is about relating different types of content from various sources to the "content" of what people know.

Some "medium is the message" examples...

Print encourages linear, detached thinking (what literate folk consider "reason") because you use your eyes to scan a series of discrete symbols that have no meaning in and of themselves, but create meaning when you put them in the proper, linear order. You are able to detach yourself from the content of print and analyze it. They try to teach you that in English class--you use analytical concepts like plot, characterization, themes, etc. to see "what's going on" in a work.

Televsion encourages direct emotional involvement because you are staring directly into the light source--it is a tactile/aural medium, not a visual medium like print, because the light from TV is projected on to your skin (as well as the sound hitting your ear drums). Your response to content on TV is more based on whether the message "resonates" with you, rather that whether it makes logical sense, as with print. It happens in real time, and you have to be involved to follow it. It's not that you can't analyze it; it's just that you tend not to analyze while watching. You just know when something doesn't "ring true" as you hear it.

(To really get the difference, try watching TV without sound, and see how much you get out of it. Then turn the sound on, close your eyes and listen. You'll notice how much more is communicated through sound.)

What McLuhan was trying to say with this particular aphorism is that we would do well to be aware of these kinds of phenomena as well, as most people tend to concentrate on the content of the medium, which is what is happening here. In the context of this article, "the content is the message." Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just not what "the medium is the message" means.

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Man, have you learned nothi... (Below threshold)

October 19, 2008 9:16 AM | Posted by Trei: | Reply

Man, have you learned nothing? 5 vs 43 is a visible difference. Nope - it's not the medium. It's the... girl!
(as in Jolie vs this dry thingie here. get it? let's talk about the movies, and heros, and stuff like that! who cares about (yuck!) reality)

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I know I'm going straight t... (Below threshold)

October 22, 2008 2:32 AM | Posted by Anonymous Hero: | Reply

I know I'm going straight to the periphery of the issue, but don't you think that selecting clothes might also be creative process. It reminds me of the million monkeys + million typewriters setup: it is not the monkeys that produce shakespeare but the reader who extracts it from reams and reams of utter nonsense.

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You might more correctly de... (Below threshold)

December 2, 2008 12:12 PM | Posted by La BellaDonna: | Reply

You might more correctly describe Balanciaga as "one of the oldest French fashion houses still in business" - but Balenciaga was designing well before the 1960s, having opened his first shop in 1914, in Paris in 1937, and there are older houses still in business, such as Lanvin, which joined the Syndicat de la Couture in 1909 and is still functioning. And both houses produced more than one of the model dresses designed, when both houses were part of the Syndicat de la Couture; it wasn't a matter of one woman in one dress only - for that, you went to your little dressmaker. You went to the couture house BECAUSE you wanted to be part of that select 2,000 or so very rich women who had access to the couture. You might customize the design, leave off a ruffle, but opt for the fur, but you DID NOT WANT total originality (see little dressmaker, above). You did want the custom fit and the quality that the house promised as a member of the couture.

So yes, in this instance, certainly, you did know less than your source.

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