ahead of the Times Krugman

5 February 2010

I am glad to see someone of Paul Krugman’s stature picking up the same kind of analogy I’ve made a couple of times in throwaway comments at The Edge of the American West. I’m sure this means I will win a Nobel some day, although I guess I’d settle for a newspaper column (if it came with a blog).

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laws of science

8 March 2009

Congressional Record, 2 May 2007, 4388-4391:

PARLIAMENTARY INQUIRY

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, I have a parliamentary inquiry.

The Acting CHAIRMAN. The gentleman will state his parliamentary inquiry.

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Would it have been possible for the Rules Committee to propose a rule to the House to waive the rule under which the Chair has just ruled this amendment out of order?

The Acting CHAIRMAN. The gentleman does not state a parliamentary inquiry. The gentleman’s question is hypothetical.

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, I have a parliamentary inquiry.

The Acting CHAIRMAN. The gentleman from Georgia will state his parliamentary inquiry.

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, isn’t it true that the Rules Committee has the authority to waive the rules under which this House operates so that certain amendments may be brought to the floor?

The Acting CHAIRMAN. The Chairman of the Committee of the Whole can only comment on the rule in operation for this bill.

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. I thank the Chair.

AMENDMENT NO. 5 OFFERED BY MR. CAMPBELL OF CALIFORNIA

Mr. CAMPBELL of California. Mr. Chairman, I offer an amendment.

The Acting CHAIRMAN. The Clerk will designate the amendment.

The text of the amendment is as follows:

Amendment No. 5 offered by Mr. Campbell of California:

At the end of section 3, insert the following new subsection:

(h) Limitation.–None of the funds authorized under this section may be used for research related to–

(1) archives of Andean Knotted-String Records;

(2) the accuracy in the cross-cultural understanding of others’ emotions;

(3) bison hunting on the late prehistoric Great Plains;

(4) team versus individual play;

(5) sexual politics of waste in Dakar, Senegal;

(6) social relationships and reproductive strategies of Phayre’s Leaf Monkeys; and

(7) cognitive model of superstitious belief.

Mr. CAMPBELL of California. Mr. Chairman, we have a budget problem here in Washington, the Federal Government. The budget that was recently passed off of this floor has a deficit in it, continues that deficit for the next 4 years. It has a tax increase in it, the largest tax increase in American history, going forward. And it also continues to raid the Social Security funds, take the Social Security surplus that we have and spend it on things that are unrelated to Social Security. So we have a budget crisis going on.

What this amendment does is it says that there are certain things upon which we should not be spending money through this bill during this time of budget deficits, stealing Social Security funds, and increasing taxes.

What this amendment does, it says there’s just a couple of things that we should not be increasing the deficit by spending money on, and I quote, “The Archives of Andean Knotted-String Records,” or to study “The Accuracy in Cross-Cultural Understanding of Others’ Emotions.”

This amendment also says that we don’t want to increase spending and, therefore, increase taxes in order to pay for a study of “Bison Hunting on the Late Prehistoric Great Plains” or “Team Versus Individual Play” or “The Sexual Politics of Waste in Dakar.”

And it also says that we don’t want to increase spending and spend any of this money in this authorization and, thereby, be continuing to raid the Social Security Trust Funds in order to study “The Social Relationships and Reproductive Strategies of Phayre’s Leaf Monkeys” or “The Cognitive Model of Superstitious Belief.”

Now, Mr. Chairman, I understand that there is a process of peer review from which these studies come in the National Science Foundation, and that’s all well and good. But our job here is we are the elected representatives and stewards of the taxpayers’ money, not the academics in the National Science Foundation, and it is our decision whether or not we wish to spend taxpayers’ funds on studies of the social relationships and reproductive strategies of Phayre’s leaf monkeys or on bison hunting on the late prehistoric Great Plains. I think we should not do that.

I am sure that some believe that these are very fine academic studies. That’s excellent. Within the realms of academic halls, they may think a number of things are fine academic studies. That’s not the question.

The question before us is, do these things rise to the standard of requiring expenditures of taxpayer funds in a time of deficits, proposed tax increases and raiding Social Security funds? I think the answer is a resounding no. I think the answer should be a resounding no, which means that I would hope that the vote on this amendment would be an equally resounding yes.

Mr. BAIRD. Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the last word.

I appreciate the gentleman’s comments about the budget deficit, and I would first suggest that the deficit rose to historic levels under the leadership of the former majority party, largest deficits in the history of this country, indeed, were accrued with President Bush and the former majority.

Looking to these studies, some of which are $10,000, now absolutely we must make sure that we spend all the taxpayer dollars wisely. But let me just share with you what the American Association for Advancement of Science, probably the most prestigious scientific body in this country, has said. Prohibiting specific grants sets a dangerous precedent for scientific research that has progressed and advanced for decades through freedom of inquiry into a broad spectrum of subjects. While congressional oversight of Federal programs is, of course, important, second-guessing peer review in this way could compromise the fabric of our public research enterprise one thread at a time. Therefore, we urge you to oppose such amendments.

Similar sentiments have been voiced by the Association of American Universities.

And I would be tempted to ask the gentleman from California, except he’s already stated his piece, why he would be opposing research that has been supported by the United States Army Research Institute; that is seen as critical to the security of our troops serving in Iraq.

Now, my wager is the gentleman’s saying to himself right now, I have no idea what the chairman is speaking about here. And that’s the problem. When you look at a cursory examination of the title, or an abstract, you don’t have an idea. That’s why we have peer review.

Which particular study am I talking about? I’m talking about the Study of the Accuracy of Cross Cultural Understanding of Others’ Emotions. What we are talking about here is if you’re going to be dealing with people from another culture, and you misread their expression of emotions, it can cost you your life, your buddies their life, or the innocent civilians their lives. The U.S. Army Research Institute believes this is important, and they support the basic elements of this kind of study.

I also am not sure, the gentleman seems to suggest, it seems, that we here in the Congress, with a cursory evaluation of the abstracts from studies, should insert ourselves in the peer-review process. I wonder if the gentleman had looked at chemistry research or physics research in the same way, and do we really want to spend this body’s time, and do you, sir, or you, sir, have the expertise to evaluate these studies? That’s why we have a peer-review process. That’s why we have a National Science Foundation. It is why we have a Science Foundation Board to direct us.

I absolutely agree that if taxpayer dollars are going to be spent on research, it is incumbent upon the scientist to do the research well, ethically, responsibly, and that it be relevant. But I do not believe it is the place of either side of this aisle to single out particular studies, as has been done in this case, and presume that with a 5-minute examination we know better than peer reviewers who have the degrees in the relevant fields and have spent years studying them and have evaluated them. That is a dangerous precedent to set, and I would urge strongly opposition to this amendment and a similar one which will emerge shortly for the sake of our soldiers.

Mr. EHLERS. Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the requisite number of words.

These are always very difficult questions, and I have learned long ago never to judge the research by the title of the proposal. These are complex issues, and I don’t know if the gentleman was here earlier when I spoke about the rate of return on research at the National Science Foundation. The best estimate is that the rate of return is a minimum of 20 percent and a maximum 400 percent on individual research projects.

Now, I challenge anyone in this Chamber to find investments that will year after year give you that rate of return on the investment.

Another point I would like to make is, as I said, you can’t always judge the full proposal by the title. This was evident a few years ago when we went through exactly the same charade when discussing the National Science Foundation budget. Some of my colleagues came down to the floor to amend the NSF appropriations bill, and one offered an amendment to remove grants for the study of ATM. This person gave a magnificent speech why we should not spend money at the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy to study ATM. His argument was, let the banking industry do the research on ATMs. What he didn’t know is that the proposal was not on automatic teller machines but the proposal was on studying asynchronous transfer modes, which involves the way computers talk to each other. This research led to a substantial change in the speed at which computers were able to talk to each other. This is a good example of why it is dangerous to just look at titles and make a judgment.

I would also pick up on the comment of Mr. Baird about cultural studies. I think one of the basic problems in Iraq, and I have told this to people in the White House, is that there were not enough people in the White House, perhaps even in the State Department, who understood the culture of the countries we were dealing with, and we failed to realize what would happen once we moved into that country. A good NSF-funded study beforehand would have been invaluable in determining what would happen.

Another example: a few years ago there was a grant on game theory. Once again, one of our colleagues rushed to the floor and said we have to eliminate funding for that. In fact, game theory is extremely useful in calculating the operation of nuclear reactors.

So I urge defeat of this amendment. It is very easy to sit on the House floor and pontificate about these issues. But if we are going to cut the budget, there are much more fertile fields in which to cut. Why would we cut the one agency that gives us a guaranteed rate of return on our investment when there are many other areas we can cut where we are getting little or no payback at all?

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the last word.

I appreciate the comments of my good friend from Michigan, and I appreciate the comments of my fellow colleague from Washington. And I have been, as a physician, a strong supporter of the National Science Foundation. I believe strongly that, in fact, they need more money, not less. I would argue that we need to prioritize appropriately in our Federal budget and provide much greater resources in the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health and the CDC and others that ultimately work and derive huge benefit to our entire society and, in fact, to the world.

But I commend my good friend from California for bringing this amendment forward because, although I may not have pulled out a couple of the items that he notes, for the life of me, I have a difficult time understanding and appreciating why on earth it would make any sense, and I would ask my good friend from Washington can you fathom how studying bison hunting on the Late Prehistoric Great Plains might have some effect on contemporary society that would make a difference with the compelling argument that you made regarding the study of cross-cultural emotions?

Mr. BAIRD. Mr. Chairman, will the gentleman yield?

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. I would be happy to yield.

Mr. BAIRD. Mr. Chairman, I thank very much the gentleman for yielding. And I would just caution I wouldn’t state “for the life of me” on something that I hadn’t studied very well no matter how obvious it may look.

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. I would be happy to reclaim my time or I would be happy to have you answer the question, one or the other.

Mr. BAIRD. I could answer the question. I am just giving you the caveat about staking your life on things.

Here is the issue: I don’t think we want to say that we should never study the history of things. It is the perspective of this gentleman that we should not study history. And particularly, when you look at bison, I am not an expert in this, but to pretend to be so would be a mistake. To pretend to be so on your side or on my side would be a mistake. The authors of this study have contended that biologists and social scientists have tried to look at how humans make decisions to maximize and minimize risks in different environmental conditions. As you face different food supply systems, how do you deal with that? And that is part of the point here. How did people who live on the plains look at where they were going to harvest bison?

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Reclaiming my time, Mr. Chairman, I would suggest candidly that it was a valiant attempt. It was truly a valiant attempt, and I appreciate the attempt, to make a justification for bison hunting on the Late Prehistoric Great Plains. I would also suggest that the sexual politics of waste in Dakar, Senegal is a questionable study.

So I commend my good friend from California, and I would be happy to yield to him.

Mr. CAMPBELL of California. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman from Georgia for yielding.

I appreciate the academic arguments, and I understand them. I am a history buff myself. I love this stuff. I might actually love this report, might enjoy reading it, might find it fascinating. That’s not the point. The point is do we want to spend taxpayer funds on this?

The United States taxpayer cannot fund every bit of academic research for every university, for everything that every professor wants to do across this country. We can’t do that. The question before us is, are these the sorts of things we do want to spend taxpayer money on? I would suggest that they are not, and that is why I would suggest that to vote against this amendment is to say that you believe that taxpayer money should be spent on these specific items. That is the question before us. Not whether it is interesting. I am a Civil War buff. I love all kinds of interesting stuff about that, but I don’t think the taxpayer ought to pay for research into it.

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, reclaiming my time, I thank the gentleman for his comments, and I would concur. I think that there are many things that are exciting and interesting to study, whether or not they ought to be priorities at this point, and again, I would point to the bison hunting on the Late Prehistoric Great Plains.

And if my good friend from Michigan would care to make a comment, I would be pleased to yield.

Mr. EHLERS. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman for yielding.

I just want to respond to the statement that we can’t fund every proposal that comes along, and that is absolutely true. The National Science Foundation funds a small fraction of the proposals that come through, and that is why we are beginning to slip as a Nation compared to other nations, because we are simply not, as a Congress, providing sufficient funds for the National Science Foundation. And I forget the current figure, but I think it is in the neighborhood of 20 percent of the grant applications are being funded; 80 percent are not being funded. It’s a tough business, and these are all peer-reviewed grants. I cannot defend them individually without looking at them. As I say, you can’t judge a proposal or a grant by its cover.

Mr. SCOTT of Virginia. Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the last word.

I rise in opposition to the amendment, and I yield to the gentleman from Washington.

Mr. BAIRD. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman from Virginia for yielding.

The challenge here, my friends, is you asked, I think, a question that is just improperly placed. Neither of us is trained in these areas. You are challenging a fundamental tenet of how we do National Science Foundation research. If you truly believe that the most cost-effective use of this body’s time, and that we are qualified to use our time in that fashion, is to, one by one by one, review National Science Foundation grants for our considered and qualified judgment of the appropriateness of those grants, it seems to me that that is a bit of a stretch. It seems to me that you are really making a political statement.

If the political statement you want to make is we should spend the taxpayers’ dollars wisely, I, 100 percent, agree. You may not know it, and probably don’t, that we are working with the National Science Foundation to establish a letter actually that scientists that receive public grants would have to sign saying they understand the money came from the taxpayers, they are committed to doing research that is well designed and ethically high quality and that is relevant.

The problem for us, in this brief time we have here and lacking expertise in the field, is it is really presumptuous of us on either side to say I can either attack or defend. I would yield time to either of you if you want to tell us what your personal qualifications are in the area of expertise of any of these studies, and I will hold you to it. What personal qualifications do you have in the broad area of this study to speak to that study?

Mr. CAMPBELL of California. Mr. Chairman, will the gentleman yield?

Mr. SCOTT of Virginia. I yield to the gentleman from California.

Mr. CAMPBELL of California. We are qualified by virtue of the fact that we have been elected by people in our districts to be stewards of their money. As I said, this is not a question of whether or not these things have academic merit within a field of academics. It is a question of whether they are worthy of spending taxpayer money in that area. I think they are not.

Mr. SCOTT of Virginia. Reclaiming my time, Mr. Chairman, I yield to the gentleman from Washington.

Mr. BAIRD. Let me just share with the gentleman the dangerous path you are on. There was a study some time back dealing with the sex life of the screw worm, perhaps aptly noted. The sex life of the screw worm, that would be pretty tempting to come to the floor and say, by God, why are we spending taxpayer dollars studying the sex life of screw worms? The reason being that that research saved the cattle industry millions of dollars by eliminating a parasite that deposited eggs in the placenta of newborn cows.

We don’t have the knowledge. We are indeed stewards of the taxpayers’ money, which is why we created the National Science Foundation, why we are very careful about designating how the peer-review process works, and, quite frankly, why we shouldn’t mess with that peer-review process. If we truly want to be stewards of the taxpayers’ money, which I believe all of us want to be, then our best approach is to delegate some of the decision making about where some of that money is spent to those who best know the realm in which the research is spent. It is precisely because I believe in the task of being a steward of the taxpayer dollars that I oppose the general purpose of the amendment.

I understand you are trying to save money. I just don’t think our best way to do so is by micromanaging either this or most of the other foundations.

And I thank the gentleman from Virginia for yielding.

Mr. GARRETT of New Jersey. Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the last word.

Just a couple of points and then I will yield.

I agree with the gentleman that in some respects, perhaps, this body should not be engaged in micromanaging various aspects of the Federal Government where we do not have expertise.

Earlier today, and in just the past week, we had a complete debate on that subject of whether this body, all 535 Members, were in appropriate position to micromanage the war, and I think some of us thought that we were not in the best position but that we should have, just as you are suggesting here, the trained professionals, the experts, the people on the field who are engaged in this activity on a daily basis make those decisions.

So I would agree with the gentleman there. And if we were to have consistency, then we should not be engaged in that matter and we should not be engaged in this case.

Let me make my second point and that is this: It is not incumbent upon the gentleman from California to be the expert in these areas that he is raising questions about. The underlying bill is not the gentleman from California’s bill. It is the majority party’s bill. It is your bill. You are coming to the floor making the case, or I should say the other side of the aisle, as I am speaking to the Chair, making the case that we should be spending all this money on these programs. So it is incumbent upon the offerer of the underlying legislation to make the case why we should be doing it and have the information why each one of these is justified so that when either the gentleman from California or Georgia raises the legitimate question, the same question that we are going to get when we go back to our constituents and are asked why did we vote on it, he should be making the justification for that.

With that, I will yield to the gentleman from Georgia.

Mr. PRICE of Georgia. Mr. Chairman, I thank the gentleman from New Jersey for his comments. And he is making a very apt point.

And I appreciate the comments of my good friend from Washington, who said, and I think it got down correctly, “We are neither trained nor have expertise in this area.” And you are absolutely right. But consistency is a wonderful thing and inconsistency is a challenge.

I would suggest that none of us are pure in this area, but my good friend talks about we ought to delegate decisionmaking to authorities who have expertise, and we should. As a physician, I am compelled and have strong affinity for all of the advocacy groups that come to my office, as I know they come to yours, and advocate on behalf of specific diseases. Most recently this week, the folks who have suffered under the scourge of breast cancer have come, and they are asking for more resources. And I always suggest to them that it is appropriate for those decisions to be made by individuals at the National Science Foundation, at the CDC, at the National Institutes of Health. But, in fact, what my good friend from Washington does all the time, in his capacity in Congress, is to determine exactly what that line item ought to be from an appropriations standpoint.

As a physician, the medical profession has suffered under the decisions that have been made in this Chamber and in the Chamber on the other side of this building because individuals thought they had greater expertise in the area of health care. And as my good friend from New Jersey clearly stated, and appropriately stated, that just this week we’ve been dealing with folks who believe they have greater expertise in the area of military competence and battles than our generals on the ground.

So I would suggest, Mr. Chairman, that my good friend from Washington is absolutely correct, that we ought to delegate in certain instances, but we ought to also utilize the prerogative that we have and the responsibility that we have as representatives in this body, representatives of our districts, and make certain that we are good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.

Mr. GARRETT of New Jersey. Mr. Chairman, I yield to the gentleman from Michigan.

Mr. EHLERS. I thank the gentleman for yielding.

First of all, I’ll make a deal with you; I won’t make any judgments about medical research if you don’t make judgments about NSF research.

The point of this really is that you cannot predict what will result from the research; that is the idea behind basic research.

Years ago when I was a graduate student at Berkeley, we were spending tremendous amounts of money to examine the behavior of elementary particles, protons, neutrons, mesons, and so on. And no one, even in the scientific community, could ever imagine any practical use for that. But later on the results from doing that research led to the development of a CAT scanner and the MRI. Now, who would ever have thought that elementary particle physics would lead to major findings in medicine which every doctor relies upon today?

Mr. McNERNEY. Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the last word, and I yield to my good friend and colleague from Washington State (Mr. Baird).

Mr. BAIRD. I thank the gentleman from California. Just a couple of brief comments, and it’s getting late, so we don’t want to carry this forever.

I would suggest that we all agree that consistency is a very dangerous thing. If the gentleman talks about being consistent, I would ask the gentleman why they chose not to micromanage the vast expenditures of dollars, not even to have oversight hearings of the vast expenditure of dollars on the war.

If you really want to save the taxpayer dollars, we are burning $2.5 billion a week in Iraq. This entire bill is $21 billion over 3 years. We’re talking about 3 full years to fund the basic scientific research of this entire Nation, from mathematics to physics to chemistry to social sciences. That’s about 6 or 7 weeks or so of what you spend in Iraq. And yet when it came to oversight of the expenditures in Iraq, the majority, then-majority party was then just virtually silent. If you really want to save the taxpayers’ money, and I do, you could have looked at that.

But let me suggest what the gentleman from New Jersey misrepresents. And I asked earlier if any folks on the other side were qualified to study this. The gentleman from New Jersey just doesn’t seem to understand how this legislation works. He completely misrepresented when he said that it is incumbent upon the majority and the chairman who is bringing this forward to defend these studies. Sir, this bill does not authorize specific studies. That is not how the authorizing language for the National Science Foundation works. It would be ludicrous, and you should know that; and if you don’t know it, you are not qualified to speak to this. But it would be ludicrous to suggest that when you authorize a foundation, that you are authorizing every single specific study or that you know what all those specific studies are. That’s not how the National Science Foundation works. That’s not how we authorize it. That’s not how this bill functions. And it’s indeed not how many, many of the authorizing bills function here. So to suggest that, to bring forward a broad authorization bill that gives responsibility to a foundation, one has to justify every single study is to misrepresent how this legislation works. And that’s the problem. I think the gentleman either misunderstands or misrepresents how the legislation works.

I thank the gentleman from California for yielding.

The Acting CHAIRMAN (Mr. Andrews). The question is on the amendment offered by the gentleman from California (Mr. Campbell).

The question was taken; and the Acting Chairman announced that the noes appeared to have it.

Mr. CAMPBELL of California. Mr. Chairman, I demand a recorded vote.

The Acting CHAIRMAN. Pursuant to clause 6 of rule XVIII, further proceedings on the amendment offered by the gentleman from California will be postponed.


big sky, country

19 February 2009

Who would have thought that in a democracy based on geographic representation, elected officials would have the effrontery to announce that their policies would help their constituents? But it’s happening. Despite all the talk about not having earmarks in the stimulus, despite all the talk of a new tone in Washington, people who voted for the stimulus bill are now announcing that it’s a good bill that will help people in their home districts.

Take the example of Max Baucus from this recent report (links in the original):

Other remarks describe projects that really don’t count as earmarks, but in a new, bacon-barded tone. “Senate Passes Jobs Bill that Will Pump Money into Montana,” reads the title of a statement from the office of Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. (Compare that to “Senator’s Plan to Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances,” only a couple weeks earlier.) But the Montana money he mentions is distributed by formula through programs that will be available to all states.

These remarks contrast with the earlier tone most Democrats adopted to build support and stanch a political bleed that accelerated in proportion to the bill’s rising price tag. Stock press releases like House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-MD) described a bill with “unprecedented levels of accountability” that “will create American jobs now” but declined to go into local details.

Yes, let’s compare those two Baucus press releases. (Hoyer will have to wait.)

The most recent is dated February 10, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:

SENATE PASSES JOBS BILL THAT WILL PUMP MONEY INTO MONTANA

Baucus, Tester Praise Bill That Will Create Good-paying Jobs, Cut Taxes, Boost Economy

The earlier press release is dated January 27, 2009 and has the headline and subheadline:

BAUCUS’ ECONOMIC RECOVERY PLAN CLEARS SENATE PANEL

Senator’s Plan To Create Jobs, Cut Taxes Advances

Notice anything odd about this? For one thing, the reporter has compared the headline of the first release with the subheadline of the second. I don’t see why he couldn’t make the same comparison headline to headline.

But that’s a minor problem compared with the dates. The premise of the whole article is that:

And as the [stimulus] bill cleared its final legislative hurdles Friday, so did some congressional Democrats who tallied their handiwork in dispatches to constituents. [Note: what’s going on with the parallel structure here?] Members switched from guarded rhetoric about a pork-free package to messages plugged with lardoons to highlight local projects, industry boons and in some cases, specific programs squeezed into the bill by individual lawmakers.

Ok, but that Friday was the 13th. The most recent Baucus press release is dated on the 10th, after the Senate passed its version of the bill but before the conference report was agreed to. If Baucus changed his tone between one release and the other, it didn’t come as a result of that Friday’s events. I suppose this could be waved off as another minor problem with the article: once the bill got through the Senate, there wasn’t much doubt that a conference report would be approved eventually and that the bill would be signed into law. Still, the 10th is not the 13th.

But, leaving the date discrepancy aside, did Baucus change his tone from one release to another? Did he start promoting provisions in the stimulus that would benefit Montana which he had refrained from mentioning before? Did Baucus adopt a “new bacon-barded tone”?

Read the rest of this entry »


the dial turns spur the worm; the worm turns, spurns

30 October 2008

This is a good background piece on those “squiggly lines” that showed up on CNN during the debates, but I would have liked to have learned more about previous uses of so-called “dial testing” in election coverage. The feature is novel to most of us Americans – unlike after-the-fact focus groups, which have been around a while – but the worldly commenters at Crooked Timber* point out that Australian television has been using a similar feature for some time.

Over there it’s called “the worm”; it even has a wikipedia entry. And in October 2007 it was involved in a bit of controversy:

Australian PM John Howard has denied involvement in a decision to ban a graphic that tracks audience opinion during a live TV election debate.

Critics accused Mr Howard of coercing the host, the National Press Club, to ban the use of the “worm”.

Channel Nine’s feed was cut 25 minutes into the debate between Mr Howard and the opposition leader Kevin Rudd.

The controversy has eclipsed the issues under discussion, which included the economy and Australia’s role in Iraq.

Glad to see the US is not the only country with the proper sense of priorities. So how did the debate turn out?

Channel Nine switched first to an ABC and then a Sky News feed, and superimposed the worm without any disruption to its coverage.

According to the worm, Mr Rudd was the overall winner of the debate. Opinion in Australia is divided on whether the worm really has any impact on voters.

Of course, it’s not just a question of whether the worm has an impact on voters; there’s also the question of how well it represents voters. Howard went on to lose the election. Maybe it was a coincidence.

 
*I endorse the suggestion that the networks keep up the squiggly lines for the post-debate coverage. And for other programming.


the limits of détente

29 September 2008

I get the impression that Marshall McLuhan was not impressed with the first Ford-Carter debate (in Philadelphia) (via):

The rebellion of the medium against the message he refers to was the breakdown of the audio part of the broadcast near the end of the debate. When the candidates learned that they could not be heard on tv, they apparently just stood there and waited for the problem to be fixed. For 27 minutes.

Years later, Carter and Ford talked about the experience for a PBS documentary (video here, starting at 3:52):

JIM LEHRER: Everyone in America who was watching, you know, was very – couldn’t figure out – this was unreal. What was it like standing there?

PRESIDENT CARTER: I watched that tape afterwards and it was embarrassing to me that both President Ford and I stood there almost like robots. We didn’t move around, we didn’t walk over and shake hands with each other. We just stood there.

PRESIDENT FORD: I suspect both of us would have liked to sit down and relax while the technicians were fixing the system, but I think both of us were hesitant to make any gesture that might look like we weren’t physically or mentally able to handle a problem like this.

JIM LEHRER: The delay continued for 27 minutes before the technicians were able to trace the problem to a blown transformer and replace it.

PRESIDENT CARTER: So I don’t know who was more ill at ease, me or President Ford.

JIM LEHRER: It looked like a tie to me.

PRESIDENT CARTER: It was a tie. Neither one of us was at ease, there’s no doubt about that. Those events, I think, to some degree let the American public size up the candidates, and I don’t think either one of us made any points on that deal.

If they could not have stood up to the audio, could they have stood up to the Soviets?


think locally, act contrarily

22 July 2008

This is remarkably coherent, when you consider the alternatives.