Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com
Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com

We are pleased to announce the winner of the January 2013 TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science:

US media helped anti-Muslim bodies gain influence, distort Islam,” Liat Clark, Wired UK

In an engaging piece jumping off of recently published sociological analysis of post-9/11 rhetoric in the United States, Clark wrote:

A study published by a sociologist has revealed that fear-mongering non-governmental anti-Muslim organisations have been heavily influencing US media since 9/11, their messages seeping into news articles and television reporting and drawing their ethos from the fringes, straight into the mainstream.

What’s perhaps most troubling about the results is how these minor groups, which would ordinarily receive little or no air time, have gained an element of respect that has led to them receiving more funding and coupling with influential bodies. Their influence is such that they have even been able to paint mainstream Muslim organisations as radical, says the study.

By going on to further explore Christopher Bail’s article and bring in commentary from sociologist Penny Edgell about her work on American responses to atheism, Clark shows a broad, but intricate, journalistic approach—particularly notable since she’s writing about religion, but also, well, journalism.

Clark’s article has been written up as a Citing by our own Andrew Wiebe, but is well worth a thorough read.

As we say often, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we do work hard to winnow our favorite nominees. And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers cheer and encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important (if not always rewarding) work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.

Not a good sign around the water cooler. Photo by John Liu via flickr.

In TIME’s online Ideas section, Columbia’s Shamus Khan makes a reasonable proposition: let sick people stay home and get well. “While we typically look to doctors and medicines in a health crisis,” such as the current flu outbreak, “we should recognize that guaranteeing paid sick days to workers could do as much, if not more, to help moderate the impact…”

Khan goes on to cite the 40% of American workers who have no paid sick days and point out that “this is not just inhumane but a matter of public health.”

The jobs with the most contact with the public are the least likely to provide sick days… when you go to purchase a cup of coffee or eat at a restaurant, know that almost all (76%) of the people serving you are likely to show up to work sick, because not doing so means not getting paid and could mean getting fired. Scholars have a name for this—presenteeism: being at work when you otherwise should not for fear of losing your job or beng viewed by your boss as lazy or unreliable.

While New York’s leadership has declined to support paid sick leave policies, San Francisco has implemented one and saw higher rates of employment. “Paid sick leave works,” Khan concludes. Employees stay home and get well, spread less disease, and are less likely to visit emergency rooms (saving themselves and the wider healthcare system millions).

Kids celebrate the start of summer break with an end-of-term pageant. Photo by Andrea_44 via flickr.com.

Educators, parents, and politicians concerned with the bottom line have spent untold time debating the merits of year-round grade school. As the Associated Press reports, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan falls firmly into the “pro” camp, believing bringing the academic and annual calendars into line will help propel American students to the front of the global classroom. Duncan even announced a new national program adding 300 hours of school per year in select districts: “The three-year pilot project will affect about 20,000 students in 40 schools in Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Tennessee.” Others plumping for a longer school-year point out that parents would rather arrange for 3 weeks than 3 months of childcare and say that disadvantaged students gain in everything from better nutrition (because they may eat up to two meals at school) to better test scores. The former head of the National Association for Year Round School in San Diego is quoted as saying “The only [kids] who don’t lose [over the summer] are the upper 10 to 15 percent of the student body. Those tend to be gifted, college-bound, they’re natural learners who will learn wherever they are.”

In the “con” camp come parents who enjoy the chance to let their kids daydream, travel, take specific summer courses to bone up in particularly needed areas, and play sports and go to camps. Groups like “Save Our Summers” “point out that states such as Minnesota and Massachusetts steadily shine on standardized achievement tests while preserving their summer break with a post-Labor Day school start,” and that districts are already strapped for cash—how will they pay for extra teachers to fill all those hours?

As it turns out, the calendar conservatives may have at least some research on their side. After outlining the many arguments for and against changing schedules, even profiling San Diego’s 40-year-old blended model (some of its schools are year-round, others aren’t), the AP comes down in the middle: “A 2007 study by Ohio State University sociologist Paul von Hippel found virtually no difference in the academic gains of students who followed a traditional nine-month school calendar and those educated the same number of days spread across the entire year.” So, while the number of classroom hours may make a great deal of difference in educational outcomes, how they’re spread out over the course of a year probably doesn’t.

Well, you don’t see that every day—or even every week in columnist Dan Savage’s nationally-syndicated “Savage Love.” But this week, if you happened to flip through your local alternative paper or visit The Onion’s AV Club online, you might have spotted the ever-elusive social scientist lurking in the often thought-provoking, sometimes lurid, and generally entertaining and thoughtful column. That’s right, Eric Klinenberg, NYU sociologist and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, is called in to reassure a reader who simply doesn’t feel like coupling up.

When Klinenberg began his research for this book, he told NPR affiliate KALW San Francisco earlier this year, he thought it was going to be a story of sadness. Lonely elderly people dying alone in heatwaves, young people failing to launch, etc. But instead, as he tells Savage, “…young adults have been the fastest growing group of American singletons. They’re delaying marriage and spending more years single. Moreover, they increasingly recognize the fact that over their long lives, they’re likely to cycle in and out of different situations: alone, together; alone, together.” Klinenberg advises the letter writer to remain open to any of those possibilities, but demand respect for his current choice to remain single, pointing out that his findings show, “People who live alone tend to be more social than people who are married… So much for the myth of selfish singles!”

Klinenberg closes rhetorically, “We’ve come a long way in our attitudes about sex and relationships. Now that living alone is more common than living with a spouse and two children, isn’t it time we learned to respect the choice to go solo, too?” For the sake of the not-so-lonely letter-writer, we certainly hope so.

For more on Klinenberg’s research, be sure to check out our Office Hours interview with him about Going Solo.

Photo courtesy Murray State University via flickr.com.

Why do we impose upon young, talented, and serious-minded high-school seniors the imperative of selecting an academic major that is, more often than not, completely irrelevant to, or at least inconsistent with, their heartfelt desires and true career objectives: to be professional athletes?

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Pargman, an emeritus professor of educational psychology at FSU, poses this question. The answer, he seems to believe is, “Who knows?” Suggesting an improvement to the current “deep dysfunction of college athletics,” Pargman goes on to say that, since it’s plain that “student athletes want to be professional entertainers,” we should let “family members, friends, and high-school coaches acknolwedge and support that goal… to study football, basketball, or baseball.”

But how? Well, “higher education, for better or worse, purports to be a pathway to a vocational future,” Pargman argues, so let’s create a “sports performance major.” The first two years would look much like any other liberal arts education, with the junior and senior years offering specialized training in everything from physiology to heavy resistance training labs, elements of contract law, kinesiology, and an introduction to motor learning. “Such prescribed coursework would be relevant to the athlete’s career objectives,” Pargman writes, and, since the students would also be playing for school teams, their experience would be analogous to that of a musical theater student: “They study their craft and display their acquired skill before campus audiences.”

Of course, a great portion of the student-athletes would still not go on to be professional athletes, but not only is this true for many collegiate programs, the major’s design would allow students a chance to gain knowledge of other associated fields. If nothing else, the author closes, “What I propose would be infinitely more honest than the charade that now prevails” as students dreaming of a pro career so often “completely lack interest in the mandatory and largely arbitrary and convenient choice of major.” Essentially, a sports performance major might let students stop acting.

Photo by Aine D via flickr.com.

Hoping to get an avalanche of Christmas cards and holiday letters this year? There’s just one rule: send out a pile of your own. That’s what a BYU sociology professor named Phillip Kunz did back in the ’70s, and his address stayed on others’ Christmas lists for nearly 15 years, reports NPR affiliate KERA news. The surprise? All those cards he sent, some 600, went to people he didn’t know.

Kunz’s little experiment involved sending about 300 personal holiday cards (hand-written!) and about 300 cards that just featured a family photo, but they all exerted a subtle peer pressure to reciprocate. He got long letters back from some of the strangers, and matching-sweater-photo-cards from others—some 200 responses in all. Robert Cialdini, a well-known emeritus social psychologist and marketing professor at Arizona State University, explains to journalist Alix Spiegel that the response reflects just how well the golden rule is drilled into us as kids: “We are obligated to give back to others, the form of behavior that they have first given to us,” he says. “Essentially thou shall not take without giving in return.”

Cialdini goes on to cite the implied social rules of give and take in common practices from tipping to using those pre-printed address labels charities send out. More nefariously, this is also what’s behind so much of the quid pro quo spotted in politics and when doctors prescribe medications because of the perks pharmaceutical companies have sent their way:

This doesn’t mean that the rule of reciprocation affects all of us all of the time…. But it is powerful. One of those invisible powerful things that can subtly shape how we behave even years after someone has given us something.

And that, of course, is how we end up guiltily eying that stack of Christmas cards every year. We have to write back, don’t we?

Photo by WoodleyWonderWorks via flickr.com
Photo by WoodleyWonderWorks via flickr.com

Education News and the Minnesota Daily report that new research from a University of Minnesota team helmed by John Robert Warren reveals a whopping 450,000 students between grades 1 and 8 are held back every year, and there is wide variation across states. Previously, it had been thought that most of these “retentions” were evenly distributed and happened in the first grade, with students not quite ready to move into the second. Presumably, these earlier retentions would be less likely to derail an educational track or firmly established friendship ties, but those that come further into grade school would hold further-reaching effects.

As Warren tells the Daily:

“I think first grade is kind of a formative year, it’s where you begin to do the building blocks of reading and math and it’s always hard to tell when a kid is ready to move on,” Warren said. “I think there is a sentiment, right or wrong, that it might do some good to hold a kid back in first grade to help them build those foundational skills.”

Warren’s team is the first to get a look at state-by-state data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data, and they have published their full report in the journal Education Researcher.

Networking needs assembled (and photographed) by Joe Loong via flickr.com.

Think of it like this: Once, workers had unions. Now they have parties.

In the Silicon Valley (and, we’d argue, most other areas), the workday doesn’t stop at 5pm. But working the late shift, writes Chris O’Brien in the Silicon Valley Mercury News, is less about pounding coffee and more about cocktails and socializing—a new form of required labor for the dot-com and post-Internet boom eras. O’Brien looks to the work of sociologist Gina Neff and her new book Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries to show how the parties these high tech workers attend (and feel pressured to attend) signal a shifting relationship between work and risk. The basic idea is a key, neoliberal ideal: “individuals… are told success is theirs if they just work hard and network enough.”

Neff told O’Brien that the workers she interviewed reported not wanting to go to the various social functions, but feeling like every time they skipped out, they were further out of the loop of well-known workers on the radar of employers and investors:

One woman Neff interviewed laments that her inability to attend parties after she got pregnant hurt her career: “That’s what derailed my rise. Because a lot of this is about going out and networking a lot and I just stopped.”

And maybe the dot-com boom seems a little out of date, but O’Brien points out that the responsibility for not getting laid off (or bouncing back after a layoff) is increasingly absorbed by workers themselves. It’s on them to always have secondary career options, get their business card into the right hands, and have the right numbers in their phones should they get a pink slip one day. Uncertainty has made hitting the social scene, O’Brien writes, more crucial than ever.


Stars by takingthemoney via flickr.com
Just gotta find the gold one… Photo by takingthemoney via flickr.com

TSP’s Media Awards may have taken the summer off, but journalists and social scientists assuredly did not! We are excited to announce the winner of the June 2012 TSP Media Award for Measured Social Science:

The Rise of Genocide Memorials,” Clare Spencer, BBC News

In her write-up of Spencer’s piece, TSP’s Hollie Nyseth Brehm showed how Spencer called on the expertise of psychologist Sheila Keegan along with her own research to help explain the phenomenon of genocide tourism—an act that is not without controversy, and Spencer does not shy away from discussing it.

As we’ve said before, the choice of each month’s TSP Media Award is neither scientific nor exhaustive, but we work hard to winnow our favorite nominees. And, while we don’t have the deep pocketbooks to offer enormous trophies or cash prizes, we hope our informal award offers cheer and encouragement for journalists and social scientists to keep up the important (if not always rewarding) work of bringing academic knowledge to the broader public.

Thompson writes even “The Principia could have been subtitled Why Everything You Know About Gravity Is Wrong.”

Okay, so that’s a little misleading. But, as Clive Thompson writes in the September issue of Wired magazine, that’s precisely the point. “Wander into the pop science section of any bookstore and you’ll be told—over and over again—a disturbing fact: Everything you know is wrong. About everything. Seriously, everything!” From Talent is Overrated to The Social Animal, Thompson has noticed that telling people they’re wrong about some seemingly familiar truth is increasingly popular: “it’ll take a renegade outsider—like, say, a ‘rogue economist’—to pierce these veils of ignorance,” “revealing a ‘secret’ long ‘hidden’ from you.”

Thompson offers three ideas for why it is we might be drawn to the “Everything You Know Is Wrong!” trope (since it’s fairly obvious why writers and media outlets—The Society Pages’ authors are no exception—adopt it). First, and most fundamentally, he says that the world is confusing and we may be drawn to those who promise to illuminate it. Fair enough. Second, perhaps “it’s a side effect of what David Shenk… called ‘data smog.’ When you live with an ever-expanding surplus of research… it may paradoxically make you increasingly unmoored from what you actually believe—so you’ll swallow anything.”

Or, third, “Perhaps our willingness to have our basic beliefs overturned is a sign of intellectual health. This mindset is, after all, key to the scientific method.” Maybe we truly, deeply learned the lesson of all those science classes, becoming true lovers of skepticism willing to embrace uncertainty, theory, testing, and a “delight in a genuinely counterintuitive argument.”

Thompson ends on a cautionary note:

Now, I’m not suggesting that all of these “secret side” articles hold water… some are awfully lazy… But the readers—they’re out there searching and questing, and that’s good.

Or to put it another way, Everything You Know About Everything You Know Being Wrong Is Wrong.

Unless, of course, I’m wrong.