Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Barrackophrenia

I have never been any good at mathematics and the only math concepts I really embraced and remembered were the ones taught to me using associative tools. Take for example, the concept of dependent probabilities which seems to be taught universally using the red-sock-blue-sock example. I found the idea fascinating that every time you dip into the sock drawer and fish out a sock without replacing it, you influence the probability of future socks being of a certain colour.

I think of the red sock and blue sock whenever I read a news item or commentary on the fortunes of a particular candidate in the US presidential elections. Every word written about the possible outcome of the elections itself has a bearing on the outcome because, obviously, the readership/viewership of the media is comprised of the same individuals who will contribute to the outcome (via their votes). Sometime before Super Tuesday, I heard a nutty right-wing radio commentator urging people to switch off their TVs because the mainstream media was subtly influencing them into not voting by presenting poll after poll slanted towards a certain candidate, and I believe he was half-right (no pun intended).

There is surely a term in the social sciences to describe the act of influencing an event by the very act of studying it, but whatever it is, there is plenty of it present in the media's (over)coverage of the Obama-Clinton battle. It is quite apparent that much of the mainstream news media loves Barrack Obama and this affection seems to, deliberately or not, manifest itself as an influencing factor through the bias in the reporting and commentary. For example, most media outlets presented Senator Patrick Leahy's call for Clinton to abandon her campaign with a straight face...while an Obama supporter might find nothing unusual with this, the empirical truth is that Obama's national lead over Hillary has rarely been in the double digits (it is 4 percentage points today), and Leahy's opinion certainly needed a lot more qualification than it got.

So here is what I call Barrackophrenia - the skewed perception that because you and your friends all like Obama, everyone else does too (schizophrenia [skĭt'sə-frē'nē-ə, skĭt'sə-] Any of a group of psychiatric disorders characterized by withdrawal from reality, illogical patterns of thinking, delusions, hallucinations, and psychotic behavior). I find it in most Obama supporters I personally know, and the mainstream news media is full of it - the media is of course more successful than my friends in palming off its delusions as its findings. As an Obama supporter myself, I certainly pray that the red-sock-blue-sock ruse works but recent electoral debacles of media favorites like Ayad Allawi (Iraq), Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney show that a rational pruning of one's expectations may be in order.

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