Confessions

It’s not easy being a social scientist during this election season, particularly if you like to feel well-informed.   I don’t know about you, but on many days I am confronted by a flood of information that I feel woefully underequipped to process.  Perhaps I should not let this bother me.  I tell students in my research methods class that good scientists should be comfortable acknowledging what they do not know.  It is just hard sometimes to take my own advice.

Sorting Information

In part, remaining well-informed is difficult because modern organizations generate and disseminate more information than we can possible process.  Some information is very important and other information is only fairly important.  Some information is not important at all.  When I am not sure I have sorted the information properly, scientific self-doubt can grow.

I find it especially difficult to sort information from news outlets, the very organizations that are supposed to help us sort information in the first place.  News outlets provide lots of information.  They keep us up-to-date on the presidential race, the situation in Syria, and the state of the economy.  They also provide up-to-the-minute reports about the stock market.

Did you ever wonder what you were supposed to do with these stock market reports?  Shouldn’t people who study organizations and markets care about them? It appears that despite the attention they get, you can safely ignore most reports about what the stock market did on any particular day.

The problem here seems to be that once we trust an organization, it is easy to assume that all the information it produces is accurate and important.  This is an especially bad habit during an election.

Evaluating the Accuracy of Information

With all the claims and counter claims flying between the two candidates, listening to the news for ten minutes leaves me with twenty unanswered questions about topics that I should probably know something about.  Unfortunately, I do not have time to evaluate them all.

Many voters claim to favor Governor Romney or President Obama based on each man’s ability to steer the economy in the right direction.  This leaves me wondering . . . Is there good evidence that presidents steer the economy in any direction?  A recent report from the Keystone Research Center declares that Democratic presidents have created more manufacturing jobs than Republican presidents have, but then it quietly notes that it is unclear how important luck was in generating these outcomes.  If we assume that presidents can steer the economy, to what extent are changes to the tax system a good rudder?

There is also the issue of the recent drop in the unemployment rate.  The Democrats claim this as a victory.  The Republicans insist that the numbers are misleading and also complain that not all jobs are good jobs (too bad we don’t pay attention to this issue all the time).  Specifically, Republicans argue that the drop in the unemployment rate is driven primarily by an increase in the number of people who have given up looking for a job.  Given the volume of material that has been written about this issue, evaluating all the claims is no easy matter.  For a sampling of arguments and counter arguments, take a look at a recent article posted at mediamatters.org.

The claim I find most interesting is one the candidates seem to agree on: both Governor Romney and President Obama argue that small businesses play an especially important role in the creation of jobs.  Are they right?  The first obstacle to answering these questions, of course, if figuring out what each one means when they use the expression, “small business.”  Perhaps that definition is available on their websites.  Maybe someone could find it for me when they have some free time.

The second challenge is matching  the candidates’ claims to scholarly studies on the topic.  After little digging, I am left with the conclusion that small businesses may not be that different from other businesses in terms of job creation.  As explained in a recent article in the Monthly Labor Review, the claim about job creation is based on a 2005 press release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which noted that firms with fewer than 500 employees accounted for 65% of quarterly net employment change.

This estimate, however, is much less impressive when contrasted with other findings in the article.  In particular, “the percentage that any given size class contrib­uted to net employment change was similar to the average employment share of that size class . . . For example, firms with 50 to 99 employees accounted for between 8.2 percent and 9.5 percent of the net jobs gained or lost, while their average employment shares ranged from 8.2 percent to 8.5 percent.”

These numbers seem to be saying that small organizations do most of the hiring and firing because so many people work for small organizations.  The report shows that on average, establishments with fewer than 500 workers employ 88.7% of people and account for 89.0% of net employment change.  Furthermore, a recent article by economist Jared Bernstein suggests that it is not small organizations that create jobs, but rather new organizations.

To really understand the role small businesses play in creating jobs, I would also like to know more about the kinds of jobs they create.  To what extent are employees of small businesses less likely to have competitive pay and benefits?  To what extent are they family-friendly and less prone to discriminate?  These are questions that sociologists have examined, but they don’t get much attention in the debates about the virtues of small businesses.

A recent article by journalist Richard Stengel, entitled “Political Truths Are Not Black and White,” suggests that I’m not the only one struggling to make sense of the political claims.  He argues that it has gotten more difficult to evaluate political claims because campaigns massage the facts more often than they did in years past.  Our penchant for selective observation and confirmation bias makes many of us fairly easy targets.

In fact, Stengel reports that people who are more informed about politics are actually less likely to evaluate information objectively.

A Confession

Ultimately, my ability to ask questions far outpaces my ability to answer them.  This leaves me in an uncomfortable position, especially when the information that prompts these questions just keeps coming.  There are, of course, organizations that will help me evaluate the information.  Many news outlets now have full-time fact checkers, and the internet has websites like http://www.factcheck.org/.  Relying on these organizations, however, is much like trusting the information I get from my friends.  It is easy, but it is no replacement for my own independent research.

Unfortunately, I just can’t do it all.  In fact, sometimes when I have lots of questions and not enough time to answer them, I am tempted to immitate the guys at Car Talk and arrive at my conclusions, “unencumbered by the thought process.”  There seem to be plenty of people doing that anyway.

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