Saturday, June 18, 2011

Canvassing Day 5

Today took a warm turn--it started to get hot, and made canvassing difficult. The street we were on seemed like a nice, quiet street, although still poor and with a lot of empty houses. However, residents said it was simply an unusual day, since normally the warm weather brings loud neighbors out of their homes to hang out on street corners.

What was supposed to be the last day of canvassing, a thought that helped me get through the hot afternoon, turned out to be far more demoralizing. The city-county workers have been very helpful so far. However, today they had to inform me that they are throwing out over 1/3 of the names we have worked so hard to collect. Various technicalities, including things like putting an address on the petition that was next door to where they were registered to vote. We went to poor neighborhoods partly to empower the residents by meeting them and including them in the political process. Now that they have joined the political process, their voices are being silenced by the bureaucratic process. Not only is this disappointing for the residents, but that also means that I have several more days of canvassing during a week when it is supposed to be hot and stormy.

Canvassing my own neighborhood later that night after this bad news was further demoralizing. I assumed if I waited until 6pm that I would catch people when they got home from work. However, I had failed to remember that the data indicates that since the 1980s, workers have been taking fewer vacation days per year, and working more hours per week. I found this to be true in my neighborhood which is being populated by under 40s professionals. As late as 6pm, on average I found one person home for every 2 blocks, and I didn't see people start coming home until after 8pm, which I felt was too late to impose, plus it had already been a long day of disappointments.

The positive for today is that I had my first Letter to the Editor published in our local paper. I have never thought about writing one, since I never read them. As a social scientist, a positivist no less, I typically don't read anything other than news and studies--I don't read fiction and have even less interest in the opinions of random people. In fact I tell my students at the beginning of all of my classes that I don't care about their opinions, and they shouldn't care about mine, that as a professor my job isn't to tell them about opinions, but to teach them about scientific research and data, and how to extract fact from opinion. So it felt like a step backwards to write and publish something that was going to be called an "opinion." However, several of my colleagues said that a letter to the editor was a good way to "announce" my candidacy. So while the letter was published, the responses were dismally predictable--readers saying yes or no, with no interaction with actual data.

This lack of interaction with real data is one of the tragedies of our "modern" political system and a profound deficit in our public discourse. Neither politicians, nor the public, listen to real data, and have become, instead, convinced that you can find any study to prove anything you want, having little understanding that there is a mountain of "good" data available, but haven't been taught to distinguish opinion polls from scientifically collected peer-reviewed research, or empowered to feel like they can state fact from opinion. Take the recent economic crisis. The federal government commissioned several groups to advise them how to handle public policy. The Congressional Budget Office, comprised of bipartisan and non-partisan social scientists to put together a plan for creating jobs. Lowering taxes on the wealthy was at the very bottom of the list for what would create jobs. However, the entire public discourse, and the primary political strategy, was to lower taxes. Similarly, when the president commissioned the debt commission to advise us how to deal with the national debt, it was completely ignored. Rather than following the data, our politicians are simply following opinion. The utter lack of respect for science has permeated our culture, and is contributing to a lack of hope by the public, and a lack of viable policy from politicians.

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