Madness & Truth

Writer David H. Montgomery's thoughts on life and culture


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While researching historical elections this week for a future blog post, I stumbled across a fascinating piece of data: a table from an 1876 almanac summarizing the literacy rates in each of the 87 French départements at the time. The results varied wildly, from near-universal literacy in Paris and the country’s industrial northeast to majority illiteracy in the interior of La France profonde.

“The census of 1872 showed an extraordinary difference in the degree of education between the 87 departments of France, the percentage of ignorance ranging between six and sixty,” wrote Frederick Martin in The Statesman’s Year-Book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the Civilised World: Handbook for Politicians and Merchants for the year 1876.


While the northeastern corner of France is a dense cluster of strong education, there are other pockets of literacy as well. “Some regions that were supposed to be far from the light of civilization turned out to have surprisingly high rates of literacy,” writes Graham Robb in The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War. By 1830, “many Alpine villages had been running their own schools for decades.”

Overall about 30 percent of the French population over 6 years old was unable to read or write. In the United States at that time, the illiteracy rate at 14 or up (a different, more generous threshold) was about 20 percent — and about 10 percent if one excluded African-Americans, many of whom had been forbidden by law to read or write less than a decade before. (The French illiteracy rate was higher among adults over 20, at 33 percent, than it was among children 6 to 20, at 24 percent, so I’m not sure how much the different age cutoffs between the French and American censuses matters.)

Hurting the French literacy rate was the aftermath of the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War, which saw France forced to cede several northeastern provinces to the new country of Germany. These provinces, as can be inferred from the map, had very high literacy rates.

“In the departments now constituting the German ‘Reichsland’ of Alsace-Lorraine, France lost the most educated portion of her former inhabitants,” Martin wrote. “The progress of education indicated in the census returns of 1866 and 1872 was very slight, due to some extent to the loss of these provinces.”

(This census in question was taken during the time of the French political conflicts I wrote about in March in “The Accidental Republic” — a post whose sources also inform this analysis.)

After the jump, an exploration of some of the factors behind this varying literacy rate, as well as an interactive version of the map:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Written by David Montgomery

July 21st, 2015 at 9:00 am

Posted in History,Maps,My work

Pure stupidity

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Today, my colleague Rachel Stassen-Berger and our competitor J. Patrick Coolican had a Twitter fight about how Patrick reacted to one of Minnesota’s senators attending a rock concert.

It was, everyone involved readily admitted, pretty stupid.

But Patrick made a further claim: that the exchange was, in fact, the stupidest Twitter fight of the day (to that point, about 12 hours old). Rachel disagreed:

After Patrick’s co-worker Ricardo declared himself to be on #TeamCoolican, Rachel asked me to back her up. This was a mistake:

As of Rachel’s comment at 12:06 p.m. today, there had been an estimated 416 million tweets, at the average rate of about 9,500 tweets per second.

About 0.7% of tweets are negative in tone, according to one study. (Other studies have found higher rates of negativity on Twitter, particularly when discussing subjects like politics. But I’m going to go with the lowest number I found, in part because it’s universal and we’re not just interested in political Twitter fights, and in part because we don’t need to consider a higher rate to settle this.)

That’s 2.9 million negative tweets in this first 12 hours. This particular Twitter fight had seven tweets (including Ricardo’s interjection but not Brian’s query), so for the sake of simplicity, let’s take seven as our average Twitter fight length and divide out for about 417,000 Twitter fights. Scale the following smaller if you prefer a different definition of the number of tweets per fight, though we’re really just making numbers up left and right here.

Let’s further assume the intelligence of those tweets follows a normal distribution, with tweets of average intelligence the most common and really smart and really dumb tweets of decreasing frequency. We’ll apply a scale of 0 to 100, where 0 is peak stupidity, 50 is average intelligence and 100 is peak intelligence.

All sides have stipulated that these tweets are, in fact, dumb. So we’re limited to just one side of the normal distribution: this fight is somewhere between 0 and 50 on the intelligence scale.

What is in dispute is to what degree this fight is dumb. Is this the dumbest Twitter fight humanly possible (a 0)? I suspect we can all imagine dumber possible Twitter fights. But that’s not necessarily fatal to Patrick’s argument that this is the dumbest fight of the day — or even, in our sample, of the first half of the day.

Now, the exact stupidity level of this fight is so subjective that it’s impossible to know for sure. But we can speak probabilistically. We know the stupidity value, which we’ll call S, is somewhere in the range 0 <= S <= 50.

But most values of S are immaterial. If this conversation is a 45, then it’s clearly not the stupidest Twitter fight of the day. In fact, we only care about about the extreme low values.

With a population size of about 417,000 fights, our normal distribution can tell us how many Twitter fights we can expect for each stupidity score range:

Stupidity score Number of fights
0 – 5 1
5 – 10 12
10 – 15 84
15 – 20 466
20 – 25 2,025
25 – 30 6,894
30 – 35 18,362
35 – 40 38,281
40 – 45 62,468
45 – 50 79,798


For example, we can expect almost 80,000 fights between 45 and 50 — just slightly stupid fights. But there will be just 84 fights between 10 and 15, where the stupidity is becoming impressive.

Fortunately for Patrick, you can still be the dumbest Twitter fight in the day without being the dumbest Twitter fight possible (a score of 0). Unfortunately, you have to get pretty darn close. A score of 6 would put you among the two dumbest fights, and the “winner” likely has to achieve a score of 5 or less.

The odds of that happening are one in 294,319, an 0.00034 percent chance.


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Written by David Montgomery

July 7th, 2015 at 6:47 pm

Posted in Miscellany

Interesting words, part 6: Science fiction

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A continuing series. In a discussion with fellow novelist Kazuo Ishigiro, Neil Gaiman discusses the odd experience of being invited to China to participate in a science fiction convention:

They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.

I took aside one of the Party organisers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.

Personally I suspect this says more about China (or at least the Chinese Communist Party) than it does about science fiction, as much as I’m a fan of the genre. But maybe it’s both!

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Written by David Montgomery

June 5th, 2015 at 9:44 am

Posted in Quotes

The accidental republic

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In 1870, Napoléon III abdicated as Emperor of the Second French Empire. Parliamentary deputies from around the country met, first in Bordeaux and then in Versailles, to determine the next form of French government, and there was little reason to expect a republic.

History alone suggested authoritarian rule was most likely. Most of French history had been under kings. Even the tumultuous 78 years since King Louis XVI was deposed saw France governed by Bonaparte emperors for 29 years, by kings for 36 years and by republics for 15 years — most of those years in the last century, under the bloody Terror: republican dictatorships with an emphasis on “dictatorship.” The last French republic had been a brief chimera, an interregnum between monarchy and empire.

Recent history too saw the democratic crushed and discredited. Parisian workers and radicals had risen up in the Commune of Paris and were brutally crushed in the semaine sanglante or bloody week, in which 17,000 or more Communards were killed (10 times the number who fell to the guillotine in 1793)1 — and the radical leaders imprisoned or exiled.

The nascent republic’s “very legitimacy… was fading by the day, with hard-line monarchist representatives sniffing for any signs of weakness that might allow them to usurp power.”2

It’s no surprise that when new deputies were elected in 1871, about 400 of the 650 were “royalists of all varieties”3 and some of the rest Bonapartists. The new National Assembly promptly repealed the “exile law” that had barred members of the royalist dynasties from entering France; as French scholar René Rémond wrote later, “was this not the necessary preface to the restoration of the monarchy?”4

Somehow, amid the chaos of German invasion, civil war, social strife, religious disputes and economic turmoil, France ended up with a republic. And unlike the prior two republics, this one was born not of popular revolution but of elite parliamentary debate that seemed from the state to favor the monarchy. How did this happen?

The simple answer is that the royalists were divided while the republicans were united. Despite their apparent strength, the monarchist majority disagreed on one vital point: who should be crowned king.

Accidental Republic sidebarOne faction, the legitimists, made homage to the Bourbons, the “legitimate” kings of France, the dynasty overthrown in the 1789 and 1830 revolutions. The Bourbon heir, the Comte de Chambord, lived in exile in in Austria and made it clear he was prepared to come home. He also lacked children, normally a drawback for a dynasty but in this case a potential strength, given the divisions among monarchists.

The other royalist faction, the Orléanists, preferred the rival House of Orléans, descended from King Louis XIV’s younger brother. The Orléanist King Louis Philippe had ruled France in the “July Monarchy” from 1830 to 1848; his grandson Philippe, the Comte de Paris, lived in England (after fighting in the American Civil War on George McClellan’s staff!) and also had a good claim. The Orléanist kings and their supporters were more liberal and bourgeois than the Bourbons; where the Legitimists believed in the intrinsic value of monarchy, the Orléanists saw it more instrumentally as a form of government better suited to protecting order and property than democracy was.

If the two royalist factions could agree on a king, they had the votes to restore the monarchy. And, in fact, the two sides did manage to agree: in a royalist “fusion,” Legitimists and Orléanists agreed that the childless Chambord would become king, and would in turn declare Philippe his heir.

“What their plan did not consider was the obduracy of Chambord,” writes historian Frederick Brown. The Bourbon pretender refused to compromise on many key policies, but perhaps the last straw was a highly symbolic line in the sand: he would only accept the throne if France abandoned the tricolore flag, flown during the Revolution, Napoleon I’s Empire and all governments since 1830, in favor of the white fleur-de-lis of the old regime. This was too much for many royalists: “While eighty die-hard legitimists stood firm behind Chambord, a majority of conservative deputies dissociated themselves from his manifesto.”5

The Orléanists dominated the right, but without the 100-odd Legitimists they didn’t have the majority needed to restore the monarchy. The Legitimists didn’t have the votes to do anything by themselves, but refused to disobey their rightful king and elect another claimant. So the rightist “fusion” split apart. The Orléanists decided to stick with a republic for the time being, “finding revolution and anachronism almost equally objectionable.”6

The monarchist dream wasn’t dead yet: deputies elected a republican president but implied “that France might yet become a monarchy” with references to the country’s “provisional institutions” and yet-to-be-established “definitive institutions.”7

If they couldn’t have a king, they settled for the next best thing: a monarchical president, a 65-year-old general who “assumed, not unhappily, that he was warming the seat for someone else.”8

But the royalists’ moment had passed. As a new constitution was being drafted, right-wing delegates united to vote down every reference to a “republic” — until one reference passed by a single vote, after which “with every subsequent item the majority grew larger.”9

The Legitimists in turn blamed the Orléanist leader, the Duc Du Broglie, for the collapse; “from then on they regularly attacked their former ally, doing damage by any means.”10 In 1874, Légitimists joined with the republicans to bring down an Orléanist government. The next year, when choosing 75 senators-for-life provided for under the constitution, “rather than see men of the Right-Center elected, a group of Legitimists preferred, from resentment and at the risk of compromising the future, to reach an understanding with the Left and elect 57 republicans, leaving only eight seats for the Right-Center.”11

Even as the royalist majority frittered away its chance, the republicans made sure they didn’t blow it — as they had in 1848, in the brief Second Republic. At that time, both liberals and leftists wanted a republican government, and their alliance was able to topple the monarchy. But the radicals continued pressing for more and more societal change — which ended up provoking a backlash from the middle class and peasantry in favor of conservative forces. As historian Mike Rapport writes, “the radicals’ hot-heated behavior” stirred “anxieties over disorder,” which led some supporters of the republic to reconsider. “The political middle ground was crumbling beneath the feet of those republicans who wanted peaceful social reform: compromise between ‘order’ and the ‘social republic’ was becoming dangerously elusive.”12 Moderates joined with conservatives to support a military suppression of a worker uprising, and the volunteers included not just well-to-do bourgeois but “shopkeepers and workers who believed that they were defending their neighborhoods from ‘anarchy’… All those in the French population who felt that they had something to lose were alarmed at the prospect of social disintegration.”13

In contrast, in the 1870s, the French republican movement held together. Leftists under Leon Gambetta set aside their “serious misgivings” and agreed to bide their time under a conservative republic because “government improvised without a constitution was serving those who argued the need for another Napoleon to restore order.”14 Gambetta formed an alliance with Adolphe Thiers — the conservative republican who crushed the Commune of Paris — “that made (Gambetta’s) agenda for social change less ominous to conservatives and (Thiers’) moderation less unpalatable to social reformers.”15

At the 1876 elections Republicans carried 363 seats against only 180 conservatives — and almost half of them were Bonapartists.16 By 1879, republicans controlled the presidency and assembly. Four years later, Chambord died, “and monarchy with him,” Rémond wrote.17 The Third Republic would endure for 70 years, the longest-lasting system of government in French history since the ancien régime — and the same length of time France has preserved republican government since World War II.

Had the monarchists been able to convert their dominance into victory in the 1870s, France would likely have eventually become democratic — the first and second world wars saw the rest of Europe’s monarchies fall or become constitutional. But France’s republican leadership in the late 19th century championed massive changes including secularization, centralization, national public education and suppression of regional languages,18 some or all of which would have been difficult under a different constitutional system. That’s not bad for a government that wasn’t supposed to last more than a few months.

  1. Alex Butterworth, The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 51.
  2. Butterworth, The World That Never Was, 36
  3. René Rémond, The Right Wing in France: From 1815 to De Gaulle, trans. James M. Laux (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969), 169.
  4. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 172.
  5. Frederick Brown, For the Soul of France: Culture Wars in the Age of Dreyfus (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 42.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Brown 42-43
  8. Brown, For the Soul of France, 44.
  9. Brown, For the Soul of France, 47
  10. Brown, For the Soul of France, 46
  11. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 200-201
  12. Mike Rapport, 1848: Year of Revolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 196.
  13. Rapport, 1848, 210-211.
  14. Brown, For the Soul of France, 47-48
  15. Brown, For the Soul of France, 52
  16. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 201
  17. Rémond, The Right Wing in France, 203
  18. Graham Robb, The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography from the Revolution to the First World War (New York: Norton, 2007), 324-330.
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Written by David Montgomery

March 25th, 2015 at 2:14 pm

Posted in History

My next step

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Six years ago, after graduating from college, I wanted to get into journalism, and I didn’t particularly care where. I fired off applications around the country — upstate New York, the Louisiana bayou, Washington D.C., California and everywhere in between.

The first place that gave me an offer — about a month after graduating, and shortly after my parents had a conversation about the possibility of rent payments — was a tiny five-day-per-week newspaper in the remote town of Pierre, South Dakota. The Capital Journal offered the same opportunities many of the other jobs I was applying to: getting in at the ground floor at a daily newspaper where I’d do a little bit of everything. But it had the added bonus of being in a state capital, and so involved my favorite type of reporting: political journalism.

After nearly missing out on the job because an email got caught in my spam folder, I accepted, bought a car, loaded it full of my scant possessions and drove it to Pierre. It was the first time I had ever visited the city, and only the third time in my life I had entered the state of South Dakota.

I don’t remember how long I intended to stay in South Dakota on that day I moved to Pierre, but even when I’ve looked elsewhere, the best option always ended up being to stay in the Mount Rushmore state.

So after two-plus years in Pierre, I moved to the Rapid City Journal, and from part-time political reporting to being the main political reporter. Just under two years later, I moved across the state to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, as the full-time political reporter for the largest paper in the state. Each move has been a step up — a bigger city, a bigger audience and more chances to immerse myself in South Dakota’s fascinating politics. Despite being a complete neophyte when arriving back in June 2008, I’ve loved my time here and have grown tremendously as both a journalist and a person. But that time is now at an end.

It’s with both excitement and sadness that I can announce I’ve accepted a job as a political reporter at the Pioneer Press newspaper in Saint Paul, Minn.

This is a step up for me — a bigger city and a bigger audience, just like my past moves. But it also takes me back to those initial days of 2008: I’m moving to a brand new state, learning a new political climate and a new set of sources. Moreover, I know I’ll be stepping into some huge shoes: the spot I’m taking is being vacated by Bill Salisbury, a 37-year veteran of the Pioneer Press and the dean of the Minnesota Capitol press corps, who is retiring on Jan. 5.

Though it’ll be tough, I’m looking forward to the challenge and the competition in the bigger Twin Cities media market. (I’ll also enjoy covering a legislature in the city where I live, instead of having to spend months in a motel room every winter.)

It’s going to be a fast transition. My last day at the Argus Leader will be Friday, Dec. 19, and I’ll start at the Pioneer Press a few days later on Monday Dec. 22. I’ll be securing housing and moving my home while simultaneously diving straight in to Minnesota’s upcoming legislative session, which starts just a month from now. I can’t wait to get right to work, learn the ropes and put out the best, most innovative journalism I can.

I’m sorry to be moving on but am definitely richer for my time here in South Dakota. Thanks for six great years!

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Written by David Montgomery

December 5th, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Posted in Announcements


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In less serious news, we turn to the august pages of Skymall:



It’s called the “Seabreacher,” and the ad calls it “the latest must-have toy for people who play hard — especially on the water.” It supposedly can reach 55 mph on the water and 25 mph under water, with an “acrylic canopy and underwater view ports” to give “a near 360-degree view.” And it’s only $85,000! “Discounts do not apply.”

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Written by David Montgomery

October 15th, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Posted in Miscellany

Rooting rules for the 2014 MLB playoffs

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Several years ago I wrote up “rooting rules” for sporting contests that don’t involve your favorite team. Well, the MLB playoffs have begun, and once again, my beloved and benighted Cubs are nowhere near them. (2015 — mark my words.) So who to root for?

My rules, in brief, are to root for these five things, in descending order:

  1. The underdog, whether it be the weaker team that year or the team with a weaker history of success
  2. The team playing any serious rival of your own team
  3. A close, hard-fought contest
  4. Whichever team has the most appealing intangibles
  5. Cool, dramatic plays

So who’s in the playoffs this year? A reasonably appealing lot, actually. (I’m writing this retrospectively to include the two teams that lost in Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s Wild Card play-in games.

In order of their regular-season records:

National League

  • Washington Nationals (96-66): The class of the NL this year, the Nationals haven’t had much luck lately. They won the division in 2012 but got bounced quickly from the playoffs and then tanked the next year. Even in their prior incarnation of the Montreal Expos they’ve never won a pennant. This year’s team has a lot of appealing players, but isn’t too perfect and isn’t too dependent on pricey free agents.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers (94-68): A mega-bucks team of stars, but also a team that hasn’t had much postseason success in decades. Clayton Kershaw is a fantastic freak of nature.
  • St. Louis Cardinals (90-72): Evil, but in a banal sort of way. Won two of last eight World Series and four of the last 10 NL pennants.
  • Pittsburgh Pirates (88-74): Terrible for so long, finally getting good. Won a Wild Card spot the last two years but haven’t advanced further. Young and appealing.
  • San Francisco Giants (88-74): Less obnoxious than you’d think they’d be, considering they’ve won two of the last four World Series titles. Still, sharing is good, Giants.

American League

  • Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (98-64): Played really well this year. Con: Include a lot of high-priced imported free agents, won the World Series a dozen years ago, perpetually in the playoffs. Pro: Haven’t won even a pennant since 2002. Mike Trout.
  • Baltimore Orioles (96-66): Yeah, really. No Yankees, no Red Sox, the young and fiery Orioles. Huzzah for all that!
  • Detroit Tigers (90-72): Won the division the last four years, and the pennant in 2012 and 2006. Like the Giants, it seems like I hate this team less than I should given their success and reliance on a few free-agent stars. But they’re still won a lot lately.
  • Kansas City Royals (89-73): Did you know they haven’t entered the playoffs since 1985? Probably. They’ve been TERRIBLE since then, consistently. Impossible not to root for them.
  • Oakland Athletics (88-74): Your mileage may vary, but I like Billy Beane and his consistently unorthodox approach to team-building. Beane has said his “shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” and I wish it would, just once, to shut the haters up.

So here’s my personal rooting ranking for this year’s playoffs:

  1. Anyone playing the Cardinals. Hatred is a much more powerful emotion than admiration.
  2. Kansas City Royals: So pathetic. Winning for once! On the down side, bunts.
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates: Also getting major points for a long-term win-deficit.
  4. Washington Nationals: My pick for the World Series. Appealing, but also really good. Also I’m a National League guy, so that will break some ties.
  5. Oakland Athletics: Can’t Moneyball win a World Series for once? Probably not — look at all the ex-Cubs on their roster.
  6. Baltimore Orioles: As I said, this is an appealing bunch of playoffs. I wouldn’t be upset at all if any of these first five teams won it all.
  7. Los Angeles Dodgers: Please don’t make me choose between your long-suffering fan-base and the best team money can buy, guys.
  8. Detroit Tigers: Not really excited at this point in the list.
  9. Los Angeles Angels: Maybe Mike Trout will do some cool stuff in the playoffs?
  10. San Francisco Giants: Get a few more years of losing in before you expect to be in my good graces.
  11. A civilization-destroying meteor.
  12. St. Louis Cardinals.
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Written by David Montgomery

October 2nd, 2014 at 10:00 am

Posted in Sports

Set condition one throughout the Internet

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Edited screenshot showing the imminent removal of Battlestar Galactica from Netflix streaming.

Edited screenshot showing the imminent removal of Battlestar Galactica from Netflix streaming.

Consider this a friendly warning: poking around on Netflix last night, I noticed that the reimagined “Battlestar Galactica” series is disappearing from Netflix streaming on Oct. 1 — six days from now.

It’s unclear why “Battlestar Galactica,” which has been on Netflix streaming for years, is about to disappear, but a lot of people are about to become very unhappy because of this nefarious move.

Frakking toasters.

Anyway, grab your gun and bring in the cat. Time for another binge!

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Written by David Montgomery

September 25th, 2014 at 8:25 am

Posted in Television

Interesting words, part 5: Brain damage

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A continuing series. In evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker’s interesting polemic, “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” he takes on misconceptions about how the brain works in popular culture:

Nowadays, any banality about learning can be dressed up in neurospeak and treated like a great revelation of science.

According to a New York Times headline, “Talk therapy, a psychiatrist maintains, can alter the structure of the patient’s brain.” I should hope so, or else the psychiatrist would be defrauding her patients.

“Environmental manipulation can change the way [a child’s] brain develops,” the pediatric neurologist Harry Chugani told the Boston Globe. “A child surrounded by aggression, violence, or inadequate stimulation will reflect these connections in the brain and behavior.” Well, yes; if the environment affects the child at all, it would do so by changing connections in the brain.

A special issue of the journal Educational Technology and Society was intended “to examine the position that learning takes place in the brain of the learner, and that pedagogies and technology should be designed and evaluated on the basis of the effect they have on student brains.” The guest editor (a biologist) did not say whether the alternative was that learning takes place in some other organ of the body like the pancreas or that it takes place in an immaterial soul.* …

“The human being has unlimited creativity if focused and nurtured properly,” says a consultant who teaches clients to draw diagrams that “map their neutral patterns” … And then there is the marketing genius who realized that blocks, balls, and other toys “provide visual and tactile stimulation” and “encourage movement and tracking,” part of a larger movement of brain-based” childrearing and education…

These companies tap into people’s belief in [a “mind” independent from the physical brain] by implying that any form of learning that affects the brain (as opposed, presumably, to the kinds of learning that don’t affect the brain) is unexpectedly real or deep or powerful. But this is mistaken. All learning affects the brain.

It is undeniably exciting when scientists make a discovery about how learning affects the brain, but that does not make the learning itself any more pervasive or profound.” (pp. 86-87. Endnotes removed, paragraphs added.)

This rant is redolent of one of the better lines from the 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mindwhen the main character inquires about the risks involved in a surgical procedure to remove memories from his brain:

Joel: Is there any risk of brain damage?

Howard: Well, technically speaking, the operation is brain damage.

*Nota bene, Pinker is an outspoken atheist who is dismissive of the existence of souls, but much of his point here is still relevant even if one disagrees with him on this point and believes that souls play an important role in human cognition.

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Written by David Montgomery

September 13th, 2014 at 12:00 pm

Posted in Quotes

Deceptively efficient at attracting tourism

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A month ago, the Washington Post’s Reid Wilson crunched the numbers and concluded that the most efficient tourism agency in the country was… Indiana’s:

From a public policy perspective, however, no state does a better job attracting visitors than Indiana. That’s because its tourism office gets a better return on its investment than any other state.

In fiscal year 2012-2013, Visit Indiana had $2.3 million to spend marketing the state, according to the U.S. Travel Association. That year, Indiana took in more than $8.3 billion in tourism revenue, the Census Bureau said. That means every tax dollar spent on marketing and promotion yielded $3,635 in economic activity.

Indiana isn’t known for its tourism marketing — where I grew up, just over the border near Chicago, we saw a lot more advertising for Michigan than we did Indiana. But we’re talking efficiency. In 2013, Michigan spent nearly 12 times as much on tourism as Indiana, but got less than twice the tourist spending in return. Indiana doesn’t spend with the big boys, but it apparently gets good bang for its buck.

At the opposite end of the list were states like Alaska, Hawaii, Wyoming, Montana and my current home of South Dakota. Those states took in less than $225 in tourism spending for every dollar of promotion. Hawaii, certainly a tourist destination by any definition, was more than 30 times less efficient than Indiana.

But those inefficient states all have a few other things in common: they’re all low-population and all fairly remote.

That’s relevant because the tourism spending data from the U.S. Travel Association has a very loose definition: it’s all spending by U.S. citizens on trips where they stayed overnight or traveled more than 50 miles. That means if a resident of Brookings, S.D., travels 52 miles south to Sioux Falls for the afternoon, everything they spend there counts as tourism.

It’s a lot easier to drive 50 miles to go somewhere than to drive 500 miles or more. That leads to a conundrum for interpreting this tourism data: a state like New Jersey has a lot more people living in that 50-to-100-mile sweet spot than a state like Hawaii or South Dakota, even though the latter have attractions people will travel long distances to see.

In fact, a huge proportion of this tourism spending appears to be in-state travel. Take a look at the relationship between state population and tourism spending:

The more people a state has, the more “tourism” spending it has. In fact, there’s a pretty remarkable, nearly one-to-one relationship between population and tourism spending. Only a few states are outliers — noted tourist states Hawaii, Nevada and Florida have more tourism spending than you’d expect from their population, and Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas have less.

Given that most state tourism agencies are focused on bringing money into the state rather than merely circulating it, this would make me leery of making any judgment about the efficiency of tourism promotion based on raw tourism spending.

(A minor note about nomenclature: we’re dealing with two confusingly similar terms here. I’ll use “spending” and “tourism spending” to refer to money spent by tourists in a state, and “budgets,” and “promotional dollars” to refer to money spent by states trying to encourage tourism.)

Instead, a truer picture needs to control for the effects of population and capture these outliers. To understand what’s going on, we need to look at four different factors.

1. Who has the most tourist spending, period?

The states with the most raw tourism spending are California, Florida, Texas, New York and Illinois. I’m sure lots of people travel to those states for tourist purposes — California and Florida in particular have lots of attractions, as does New York City. But those states also have lots of their own residents, so tourism is a small percentage of the overall picture.

Meanwhile the lowest amounts of tourist spending are all states with small populations. In fact, some of them are known tourist destinations — Vermont (third worst) has ski slopes, South Dakota (sixth) has Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, and Wyoming (seventh) has Yellowstone.

Nonetheless, all of those states have less than $3 billion in total tourist spending. That’s an order of magnitude less than the top five states.

Most tourism spending

  1. California ($75.5 billion)
  2. Florida ($48.4 billion)
  3. Texas ($43.3 billion)
  4. New York ($35.9 billion)
  5. Illinois ($25.1 billion)

Least tourism spending

  1. Delaware ($1.3 billion)
  2. Rhode Island ($1.6 billion)
  3. Vermont ($1.7 billion)
  4. Alaska ($1.7 billion)
  5. North Dakota ($1.8 billion)

As we know, though, “tourist spending” is highly dependent on population. So we’ll look at the fuller picture in a minute.

2. Which states spend the most money trying to attract tourists?

The biggest tourism budgets are largely from the biggest states — which have the most money to spend. The one exception is Hawaii, for whom tourism is a necessity rather than a hobby. Meanwhile some states just don’t seem to care very much, spending less than $3 million on promotion. Among these states is Indiana, identified by Wilson as the most efficient tourism promotion state. Given that among the lowest-budget states it has the largest population, you can see where its efficiency comes in.

Washington State abolished its tourism department several years ago.

Biggest promotional budgets

  1. Hawaii ($75 million)
  2. Florida ($56.2 million)
  3. Illinois ($55.4 million)
  4. California ($50 million)
  5. Texas ($37.2 million)

Smallest promotional budgets

  1. Rhode Island ($710,000)
  2. Delaware ($2 million)
  3. Indiana ($2.3 million)
  4. Iowa ($2.4 million)
  5. Vermont ($2.9 million)

Those raw numbers only tell part of the story, though. As we know, both tourism spending and state budgets are correlated with population. So let’s control for population and look at per-capita data. This changes the picture radically.

3. Which states have the most per capita tourist spending?

Accounting for population in many cases flips the results upside down. The states with small overall tourism were all small-population states. And many of these same states show up at the top of the list when it comes to tourist spending per resident.

The leaders in per-capita visitor spending are Nevada and Hawaii, two obvious destination states. After that are many of the small, rural western states Wilson identified as the least efficient in tourist promotion: Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota, along with Vermont.

The states with the lowest tourism spending per capita tend to be states with a fair amount of “tourist” raw spending. It’s just that they’re got so many people that tourism isn’t as important as it is for the Hawaiis of the world.

Most tourism spending per resident

  1. Nevada ($8,473.62)
  2. Hawaii ($6,344.78)
  3. Wyoming ($4,161.43)
  4. Montana ($2,786.50)
  5. North Dakota ($2,755.03)

Least tourism spending per resident

  1. Ohio ($1,252.65)
  2. West Virginia ($1,269.47)
  3. Indiana ($1,289.66)
  4. Pennsylvania ($1,408.35)
  5. Michigan ($1,431.46)

Also note that Indiana shows up on this list, too.

4. Which states spend the most money per resident attracting visitors?

Hawaii spends more raw money on tourism promotion than any state, so it’s no surprise this small state is also the runaway leader with more than $55 in promotional spending per resident per year. It’s followed by Alaska ($23.94), Wyoming ($22.36), South Dakota ($14.98) and Montana ($12.43). Those are all small states, which inflates per capita numbers, but also remote states that have to work harder to persuade people to visit. Meanwhile, the states with the lowest per capita spending are Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Georgia, all of which spend less than a dollar per resident trying to attract visitors.

Highest tourism promotion budget per resident:

  1. Hawaii ($55.13)
  2. Alaska ($23.94)
  3. Wyoming ($22.36)
  4. South Dakota ($14.98)
  5. Montana ($12.43)

Lowest tourism promotion budget per resident:

  1. Indiana ($0.35)
  2. Ohio ($0.43)
  3. Pennsylvania ($0.46)
  4. Rhode Island ($0.67)
  5. Georgia ($0.70)

All this leaves us ready to draw our final conclusion:

5. Which states have the most efficient tourism promotion departments, accounting for population?

What we’re looking at here is tourism spending per resident per budget dollar. Effectively, we’re taking Wilson’s original calculation (tourism spending per budget dollar) and adding in a division by population. These numbers are very small, so for legibility’s sake, I’ll present them as per capita spending per thousand promotional dollars.

By this model, the actual most efficient state tourism agency is Rhode Island, which brings in $2.11 per resident per thousand tourism promotion dollars. Rhode Island, 48 miles long from north to south, probably doesn’t have much intra-state “tourism” spending by the U.S. Travel Association’s definition. Rhode Island has a meager $1.5 billion in tourist spending, second-smallest in the country, but it also has a small population and gets a lot of bang for the buck from its $710,000 annual tourism budget. It’s twice as efficient as the next state.

Vermont comes in number two, with 92 cents of tourism spending per resident per thousand promotional dollars. It’s followed by Iowa, Delaware, and Nevada.

Indiana, Wilson’s pick, is the sixth-most efficent state, with 57 cents per resident per thousand promotion dollars. That’s still pretty good, Hoosier State! Tourism’s not a big part of your economy, but you’re not throwing money down the drain trying to get that mediocre result.

The least efficient states by this metric are familiar: Illinois, California, Florida, Texas and Michigan. Hawaii is the sixth-worst, getting just 8.4 cents of spending per person for every thousand dollars it gives its tourism office. But that’s still better than Illinois’s dead-last 3.5 cents.

The other states Wilson called out for inefficiency are all over the map. Alaska is 34th at 14.2 cents. Wyoming is 11th with 33 cents. Montana is 18th with 22.6 cents, and South Dakota is 21st at 21.4 cents.

Here’s the best and worst states at tourism promotion on this per capita basis. A full list is at the bottom.

Most efficient states, per capita tourism spending per promotional budget dollar:

  1. Rhode Island ($2.11)
  2. Vermont ($0.92)
  3. Iowa ($0.83)
  4. Delaware ($0.76)
  5. Nevada ($0.57)

Least efficient states, per capita tourism spending per promotional budget dollar:

  1. Illinois ($0.04)
  2. California ($0.04)
  3. Florida ($0.05)
  4. Texas ($0.05)
  5. Michigan ($0.05)

By way of comparison, here’s the ratings by Wilson’s model:

Most efficient states, tourism spending per promotional budget dollar:

  1. Indiana ($3,635.60)
  2. Pennsylvania ($3,084.38)
  3. Ohio ($2,890.24)
  4. Georgia ($2,583.81)
  5. Iowa ($2,523.15)

Least efficient states, tourism spending per promotional budget dollar:

  1. Alaska ($101.23)
  2. Hawaii ($115.08)
  3. South Dakota ($174.24)
  4. Wyoming ($186.15)
  5. Montana ($224.15)

After the jump, a footnote and the full ranking of tourism department efficiency.

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Written by David Montgomery

August 28th, 2014 at 3:14 pm

The Catch-22 of candidate recruitment

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(This post has been adapted from work previously done for the Argus Leader and its Political Smokeout blog by David Montgomery.)

As chairman of the South Dakota Republican Party, Craig Lawrence said his No. 1 job is clear: finding people to run for office.

South Dakota Democratic Party executive director Zach Crago puts similar importance on finding candidates. And while the races for governor and Congress get most of the attention, it’s the lower-profile state legislative candidates who take most of the time.

“I am of the philosophy that the more candidates we have, the better,” Lawrence said.

By that standard, Republicans in South Dakota are doing better. Already commanding supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature, Republicans are contesting 15 more House seats than Democrats, and eight extra Senate seats. If every single Democratic candidate were to win, they’d still have fewer seats in the House than the Republicans’ current total of 53.

After candidate withdrawals in August, Democrats had slightly fewer candidates in each chamber than they did in 2012, though Northern State University political science professor Jon Schaff said it looks like Democrats are recruiting better candidates than in past years.

“Given the state of their party, this might be the best they can hope for right now,” he said. “That might be a kind of victory, if they can beat some vulnerable incumbent Republicans.”

Simply putting more people on the ballot doesn’t mean a party’s going to win. While they can’t win any race they don’t enter, many of the seats parties are conceding would have been difficult to win anyway.

For example, the eight Senate seats Democrats never even attempted to contest were in the 13 most-Republican districts in the state. In each one, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than 2,000. The five more they abandoned at the withdrawal deadline all had popular Republican incumbents and in almost all cases heavy GOP leans.

Similarly, Republicans aren’t running any candidates in three of the four districts where Democrats have a voter majority — though they’re also conceding two districts where they have 1,000-voter majorities.

Contested vs. uncontested races

Although it’s never advantageous to sit out a race, it’s often been the case for Democrats that fielding a full slate of candidates in a Republican-heavy district hasn’t made much of a difference.

In 2012, for example, Democrats won 17 of the 70 House seats, or 24 percent. In the 39 races where Democrats ran a full slate of candidates, they won 10, or 26 percent — an almost imperceptible improvement.

In the 2008 and 2010 Senate races, Democrats actually did worse in the races where both parties contested seats. In 2010, for example, they won six seats overall — but three of those were uncontested. In the 22 races where Republicans and Democrats both ran a candidate, Democrats won just three.

The effect was the opposite in the 2012 Senate races and the 2010 and 2012 House races. There, Democrats did better in races they contested than they did overall. (The 2008 House race had essentially identical results.)

But overall, the differences were small. The biggest difference was a mere 3.5 percentage points.

Cause or effect

Setting aside the fact that parties can’t win races where they don’t run a candidate, and that barring major scandal from their candidate it’s always better to contest an additional marginal race, there’s two different ways to think about the importance of candidate recruitment. Either:

  1. Having more candidates causes a political party to win more, because they’re going to win a certain percentage of races they contest and increasing the number of races you contest increases the number you win; or
  2. Both the number of candidates and the number of races won are effects of the general political environment. When the environment is favorable to a party, more people become candidates and more candidates win; when the environment is unfavorable, fewer people become candidates and fewer people win.

Recent history is far from conclusive, but suggests the second interpretation is more accurate.

When Democrats feel like they’ve got a good chance of winning, they’re more likely to invest their time in running for office than if they feel they’re a long shot.

In 2008, a good Democratic year across the country, Democrats ran candidates for all 35 Senate seats and 66 of 70 House seats. Two years later, as Democratic morale plummeted and Republicans were on the offensive, 25 percent fewer Democrats were running in the general election.

“You have a lot of Democrats who look at some of these districts and say, ‘Wait a second, how is it possible for a Democrat to win in a district like this?’ ” Crago said. “Likewise, if you see where the Republicans are not recruiting candidates, you’re seeing the exact same thing from them.”

Lawrence saw the same thing.

“When you encourage somebody to run, you have to encourage them that there’s a potential likelihood that they can win,” Lawrence said. “Nobody likes to lose.”

On the national level, political science research dating back decades, including a landmark 1983 book by Gary Jacobson and Samuel Kernell, found that potential candidates tend to run for office only when they feel their odds of winning are best:

High-quality challengers enter Congressional races when their odds are best. This is determined not only by what is going on in the district, but also by national political tides. Thus, national-level phenomena influence whether high-quality challengers enter, which in turn influences voting within each district.

Looking at this year’s candidate numbers, Schaff noted improvement by the Democrats. But overall, he said, Democrats’ candidate counts look more like those from 2010 and 2012, when they took a drubbing, than 2006 and 2008, when Democrats did well.

“If you want to draw a conclusion from that, it’s that the political entrepreneurs in the Democratic Party are thinking that this year is going to be more like ’10 and ’12 and that, therefore, this is not a great year to run,” he said.

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Written by David Montgomery

August 24th, 2014 at 11:23 pm

Posted in My work

Stupidity or malevolence

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Originally published on Argus Leader Media’s Political Smokeout blog on Aug. 8, 2014. Expanded and reposted here.

With apologies to Thomas Jefferson, the concept of self-evidency is one of the most dangerous concepts in modern American political discourse.

When something is self-evident, it doesn’t need to be justified. It’s obvious to anyone in their right mind who thinks about it.

In contrast, things can be true without being self-evidently so. I believe it’s better for government to be as transparent as possible. Someone could rebut that government transparency should be limited because it threatens people’s privacy. That doesn’t change my mind — I’m convinced transparency is best. But I recognize that other points of view are at least potentially valid and don’t expect others to adopt my view because it’s obviously right.

But lots of people think their views about subjects like taxes, immigration, same-sex marriage or energy policy are self-evidently true. In some cases they may even be right! But even treating something as self-evident is toxic to the polity, because it chokes off debate and leaves people unwilling to change their minds even when presented with convincing evidence that they’re wrong.

A particular mindset emerges among people who believe something is self-evidently true when confronted with people who hold a different position on that issue. How do you explain differences of opinion when something is self-evident? There are only two options: the other person has to be either stupid or malevolent.

That is: someone who doesn’t hold a “self-evident” view is either too stupid or uninformed to realize the obvious correct answer, or they realize that obvious correct answer and yet willfully act on behalf of a position they know to be wrong.

This even applies to people who don’t even disagree with the self-evident-believer, but merely don’t share their outrage about the situation at hand. For someone who believes so strongly in the capital-t Truth of a particular issue, even staying on the sidelines is unacceptable — something that can only be the result of stupidity or malevolence.

Stupidity or malevolence is in most cases a false binary. In most issues, well-informed and well-meaning people can come to different conclusions about the best goal and/or the best way to reach the best goal. People can also have good, valid reasons for not sharing outrage (such as, I’ll humbly submit, trying to cover a controversial issue as a neutral journalist).

But, you might justifiably object, some things are self-evidently true. We shouldn’t entertain serious debate about subjects like the morality of genocide just for the sake of “civility.” And you’re probably correct. But the problem comes when you move from the clear-cut cases to muddier ground.

As human beings we’re fallible and prone to errors in judgement: We all know people who passionately believe true something we think to be ridiculous or wrong. We can even identify things we ourselves have been wrong about in the past. Are our current set of beliefs correct in a way that our past beliefs and others’ credos aren’t? It’s unlikely. This doesn’t mean the things we believe aren’t true or that we should reject them. All it means is we should, in holding to certain truths, acknowledge the possibility — however slim — that we’re wrong and our opponents are right.

Many things have a true answer to them, but only a few of those truths are self-evident. Confusing the two has poisoned our political debate.

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Written by David Montgomery

August 8th, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Philosophy

I’ve got a newsletter now

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So let’s say you want to give the moon an atmosphere. I’ve got you covered.

Physics professor Gregory Benford wrote a piece for Slate about how one could theoretically slam ice comets into the moon as step one of a plan to make the moon habitable for human life. It’s likely only a few of you read it — it got about 1,600 shares on Facebook and 250 tweets, which is pretty good but even with a decent multiplier effect is far short of ubiquitous. But it’s the sort of thing I tend to stumble across, sipping from the firehose of information online through dozens of RSS feeds, Twitter and friends who also like gathering interesting or bizarre links.

I’ve been in the habit of sharing interesting stuff like that with a few friends, or posting the best on my Facebook page or Twitter. Now I’m trying something new: culling the best stuff I come across into regular miniature newsletters. I call it “Internet Flotsam” and you can subscribe below to get an assortment of interesting links in your inbox on a mostly-daily basis. I try to mix it up — some history and politics, some science and statistics, some pop culture and sports.

Here’s a few excepts from my recent letters, to give you a sense of whether this is the sort of thing you’re interested in:

  • Having kids, keeping roommates: Two couples — one expecting kids — went in together on a joint 30-year mortgage. They’ll share the house and housework and raise their families together. The experiment is just starting, but all four people hope the experience will “curb feelings of isolation” and preserve the social living environment they loved while having roommates, even after the point (kids) when couples make their family their social focus.
  • Twelve Wrong Men“12 Angry Men” is the quintessential jury drama, an idealistic look at how one man’s dogged goodness helped persuaded his comrades to set aside their biases and save an innocent man from an unjust conviction. Except, Mike D’Angelo argues, the alleged criminal in “12 Angry Men” was almost certainly guilty.
  • Ten years of sentencesEver wish you could just make yourself put everything aside, sit down, and get some serious reading done? Daniel Genis found himself in just that situation and read 1,046 books in 10 years. (That’s about one every 3.5 days.) His secret? He was serving a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. ‘At first, Genis resisted “Ulysses,” but his father kept bringing it. “I argued that he wouldn’t have the willpower to get through it once he became a free man,” Alexander Genis told me.’
  • The LeBron James of baseball:  LeBron James is a beast at basketball, someone who can single-handedly turn a terrible team into a good one just by setting foot on the court. What would it mean for someone to be as dominant at baseball as James is at basketball? Jeff Sullivan tried to find out, and the answer is that he would be about two to four times better than any player in history — the best hitter ever, who’s also the best fielder ever, and maybe who has to also be the best pitcher ever. Why? Basketball has five players on the court who play both offense and defense. Baseball has nine (or 10) at a time, and one of them does most of the defensive work — but that player only plays every five games. Each player in baseball is simply less important to their team than an NBA star.
  • Lifehacking“How to make epic pancakes with your Japanese rice cooker.” I haven’t tried this yet — and don’t even own a rice cooker — but this looks amazing enough I may do both. (Confession: the best part for me at first glance is the minimal cleanup.)
  • Terra nullius, terra meam: A Virginia man has founded his own African kingdom as a way to shame all the other dads who invented excuses when their daughters wanted to become princesses. Surprisingly, he may have firmer legal footing here than you’d expect, because of a centuries-old piece of international law (and a unique territorial dispute between Egypt and Sudan). It’s not going to work, of course, but it COULD work. (Also, I apologize for the Google Translated Latin.)

If you do subscribe, please give me feedback. This is only valuable for me if people are enjoying the links, so tell me what kind of stuff you like and don’t like to see in these letters, and what time of day is best for you to get them.

You can read my full archives here, and subscribe here or below:

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Written by David Montgomery

July 17th, 2014 at 10:00 am

Posted in Miscellany,My work

An unscientific experiment in new media forms

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Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic terms new media ventures like FireThirtyEight, Vox, the Upshot and others “method journalism,” in that they’re primarily focused on how they report the news, rather than what news they report:

In a world where traditional beats may not make sense, where almost all marginal traffic growth comes from Facebook, where subscription revenue is a rumor, where business concerns demand breadth because they want scale… a big part of the industry’s response this year has been to create sites that become known by how they cover something rather than what.

FiveThirtyEight’s method is using data and statistic to cover the news. Vox is about explaining the news. Circa is about prioritizing news for viewing on mobile phones. The Upshot is about “plain-spoken, analytical journalism.”

As a reporter myself interested in exploring new ways to gather and produce journalism, I’ve been following these new ventures avidly. And yesterday, completely unintentionally, I conducted an unscientific experiment on my work blog into how readers respond to these various new approaches to journalism.

In the morning, I posted a FiveThirtyEight-style data analysis (in this case, I was literally inspired by an article FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver had written). After hearing an argument about why a gubernatorial had lost his election, I cross-referenced Census data and election results to figure out whether dislike of “carpetbaggers” had swung serious votes:

If dislike of people without deep roots in the state contributed to Lowe’s defeat, then you’d expect him to do worse in counties where there were fewer transplants — who presumably don’t have the same value on deep local roots, since they lack them themselves…

Transplant analysis

… In this case, the correlation between Lowe’s support and the rate of out-of-state residents is essentially zero. You can see it for yourself: there’s no pattern there. Lowe did well in some counties with lots of transplants, and in some counties with few transplants. Among counties with similar levels of out-of-staters, Lowe’s vote share varied by as much as 50 points.

A few hours later, I posted a Vox-style article, explaining something that bewildered more than one person I know: why the closure of a brief section of Interstate 29 caused authorities to announce a 455-mile detour.

Why would authorities tell motorists to go through Des Moines when they could drive on back roads through Iowa or Nebraska to avoid the flooding, at a much lower cost in added time and miles?

After I snarked a little bit on Twitter, a spokesperson with the state Emergency Operations Center called me up to explain.

“Federal law requires that the interstate system in all of America must be connected,” said Jonathan Harms, a spokesman with the Emergency Operations Center. “The DOT and the Federal Highway Administration needs to have some sort of route that collects all the interstates in America.”

Officials are, therefore, obligated by law to present an official detour that stays on the Interstate system. But they also can offer other, more direct detours. Like this one… that’s only an extra 20 miles and half an hour.

I had fun with both posts. But they got very different responses from the public.

The FiveThirtyEight-style post provoked a few intelligent responses by other close observers of South Dakota politics, but generally didn’t attract a wide audience. In its first day, it was shared on Facebook seven times — at least two of which were by me. Six weeks after its post, on July 28, it had racked up a grand total of 148 views.

The Vox-style post didn’t really spark any discussion. (There had been some Twitter discussion about the detour before my post on why the long detour was proposed, but nothing once I explained the reason for the seemingly absurd detour.)

But lots of people read and liked it. In its first day, it was shared on Facebook a full 344 times. And six weeks into the future it’s got a full 4,759 total views and is my third most-viewed story of the past three months behind two articles that got national attention.

As I mentioned above, two posts is in no way a scientific study of how people respond to data-heavy analysis vs. explanatory journalism. FiveThirtyEight has plenty of posts go viral, while Vox has written some wonky analysis to go along with its usual explainers aimed at making the news understandable for ordinary people. But it’s not surprising to me that my unscientific experience yesterday showed a lot more people are interested in having things explained to them in a straightforward manner than deep dives into the numbers.

(This post has been updated with new data.)

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Written by David Montgomery

June 20th, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Media

Interesting words, part 4: Common sense

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A continuing series. This quote comes from a personal interview with Daniel Levin, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah:

Common sense is always the easiest way to avoid actually arguing the matter at hand. “It’s just a matter of common sense. It’s just so obvious.” Which works with people who already agree with you. But politics is largely the process of convincing people who don’t always agree with you.

This is a powerful statement even without its context, and I’m tempted to leave it at that. As a political journalist, I frequently hear appeals to “common sense” from politicians and ordinary citizens alike. It’s a time-honored tradition dating back to Thomas Paine. But appeals to common sense are also a way of shutting down debate, dismissing potential objections as nonsensical or elitist or both. The common-sensical argument may very well be the best argument, but it’s not the best argument because it seems intuitively correct. That’s a logical fallacy.

(None of this is to suggest that common sense doesn’t have value. It does — but it’s wanting as a logical argument. Similarly, criticism of common sense doesn’t imply the inverse: that something has value because it is complicated or counter-intuitive.)

Common sense is also, as Levin went on to say, “anti-political” because politics in a democratic form of government are based on the assumption that there are legitimate differences of opinion.

“If you say that if somebody doesn’t agree with you they have no common sense and they need not be listened to, it’s a great way to avoid the difficult work that is politics in a diverse country — or even in a town,” Levin said. “If only those who agree with you show up, and only those who show up matter, why do the hard work of convincing others?”

The particular context was Levin analyzing attempts to create “citizen courts” that could indict and judge people — often officials — for offenses against individual liberty. (This post is not to opine on the validity of these citizen courts or the broader “sovereign citizen” movement, which has frequently clashed with regular officials subscribing to mainstream legal theories.)

I wrote two articles about citizen courts in South Dakota:

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Written by David Montgomery

June 12th, 2014 at 10:00 am

Posted in Philosophy,Quotes