Bad Science and Elections

Now, I am sure every one knows that New Scientist is “pop science” – scientific news processed for laymen. In general this is great as is gives people an insight into the wonders of science without the tedium of years studying. Peer review is great, but only in its place. New Scientist is not the place.

Sometimes, this causes problems.

In this weeks issue, there is an article titled “Read my lips… and my voice, and my face” (online version titled “Software spots the spin in political speeches“) which is (at best) bad science being used for electioneering purposes. On the surface this is nothing more than the old idea that you can tell when people are lying by their gestures and use of language. This is a subject close to my heart and generally falls foul of the greatest of problems – it is sort of true. Body language, eye access, word selection and the like can give you an indicator of lies (for example) but only in the broader context of the persons behaviour.

Take the often cited example of people rubbing their nose when they lie. Yes, some people do this. But most of the time it means the person has an itchy nose and nothing else. The same with eye-access (as highlighted in The Negotiator), but the problem is people are different – not everyone looks the exact same way. Language choice is possibly the worst indicator as this is dictated by your background, education and the like. Simply put, there is no easy way you can use this information as a reliable indicator of deception or misdirection. You need to study the person in a variety of controlled circumstances and build up a pattern of their behaviour.

With this in mind, we can return to the New Scientist article. It seems someone has come up with an automated way of monitoring the terminology used, the voice and the facial expressions of politicians to measure how much “spin” there is in their speeches. Amazingly this has not resulted in 100% returns each time. This is how it is described:

The algorithm counts usage of first person nouns – “I” tends to indicate less spin than “we”, for example. It also searches out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, since speeches that contain few such amendments tend to be high on spin. Finally, increased rates of action verbs such as “go” and “going”, and negatively charged words, such as “hate” and “enemy”, also indicate greater levels of spin. Skillicorn had his software tackle a database of 150 speeches from politicians involved in the 2008 US election race (see diagram).

Now, this strikes me as inherently flawed given that politicians have their speeches written for them by teams of “experts” (who are more than capable of concluding which words mean which things), and are nearly always well coached in delivering them in a manner to “stir” the audience. It strikes me that adding an arbitrary judgement as to what is, or is not, spin gives nothing that even resembles science. In an attempt to dismiss this, Skillicorn (the systems creator) says:

Additionally, [Skillicorn] says, little details count: pronouns such as “we” and “I” are often substituted subconsciously, no matter what is written in the script.

But you have no idea which ones are added by the script writers, which ones are subconcious and you certainly still haven’t proven that using “we” means there is a lot of “spin” in the speech. We still don’t really know what “spin” is – is it a good or bad thing?

The “Headline” results of this study are that Obama’s campaign has more spin than any of the other politicians (+6.7, where 0 is average for a politician) while McCain’s campaign had the lowest (-7.58). It states this supports McCain’s claim to being a “straight talker” (*cough*) and on the surface looks like it is a Republican Political Campaign masquerading as Science. In the articles defence, there is some balance:

So the analysis appears to back up McCain’s claim that he is a “straight talker”. However, for the purposes of political speech-making this may not be an entirely good thing for him. “Obama uses spin in his speeches very well,” says Skillicorn. For example, Obama’s spin level skyrockets when facing problems in the press, such as when Jeremiah Wright, the reverend of his former church, made controversial comments to the press.

Great from a science point of view. We would like to think that the readers of New Scientist are able to accept the idea that spin is a positive force for a politican.

However (and this is supported by a quick scan of the printed media that have picked up on this), the general population are not. We have been indoctrinated by decades of thinking politicians spin is an inherently bad thing. This article has generated several headlines in the free media about Obama being full of spin and McCain being straight talking. Both can translate into political capital. Shame on the New Scientist.

One funny bit which never quite made it into the free-papers is this nugget:

“The voice analysis profile for McCain looks very much like someone who is clinically depressed,” says Pollermann, a psychologist who uses voice analysis software in her work with patients. Previous research on mirror neurons has shown that listening to depressed voices can make others feel depressed themselves, she says.

Well, that pretty much summed up the effect his speeches have on me.

It is during the US Presidential elections that I thank Loki I live in the UK….

2 thoughts on “Bad Science and Elections

  1. “…very one knows that New Scientist is “pop science”…”

    Not really. Its readership is mainly people in science who want a general magazine that keeps them informed of developments in sciences that they are not experts in.

    It’s still the main soure of employment notices in the UK and, while individuals may cringe at the simplification of their branch of science, it’s a much better source of information than, say, Scintific American.

Comments are closed.