Monday, October 26, 2020

Does the Republican Party seem more authoritarian than it once was?

I'm not a political scientist, and I won't even pretend to be. What I can speak to is a nagging perception I've had for a while now. Somehow the Republican Party has appeared to me to have changed quite drastically since the start of the 21st century. I am probably not alone in that assessment. If nothing else, I can't help but notice a sharp change in the party's rhetoric and voting behavior over the past two decades. An anecdote that sticks out in particular surrounds the party's effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act (often referred to as Obamacare) in 2017. I recall at the time that as the Senate leaders were drafting legislation, even party members of the relevant committee responsible for drafting and voting on it complained of being left out of the process. There is a certain chain of command in both major US parties, but it seems as if the chain of command is more rigid within the Republican Party. It also seems as if the party's zeitgeist has shifted to more of an "us versus them" approach to governance, rather than working with and compromising with the opposing party members. 

So, that's been my perception, and one that I have probably voiced in personal conversation for a while. Now we actually have some hard data to examine. The Guardian broke a story about a study conducted by V-Dem Institute of Gothenburg, Sweden shows that the US Republican Party has dramatically shifted from being a fairly center-right party similar to many other European center-right parties to that of more autocratic parties such as Hungary's Fidesz. That shift has been most dramatic during the current Trump era. The US Democratic Party, by contrast, has barely shifted on most dimensions in the past 20 years. Encouraging violence, which was unheard of in the Republican Party is now quite noticeable, as has disrespect for opponents. On dimension of disrespect, neither party had particularly glowing reputations, but while the Democratic Party never budged, the Republican Party has come to more openly embrace that particular tactic.Neither party had a glowing record on immigration in 2000, but again, the Republican Party has become openly anti-immigrant whereas the Democratic Party of today is no different than it was 20 years ago. Both parties have shown some shift toward being more populist and anti-elitist (however that is operationally defined). That shift is fairly minor for the Democratic Party (no doubt fueled by an emerging progressive wing led by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) but very pronounced within the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has not budged on pluralism and liberalism, whereas the Republican Party is clearly anti-pluralist and its positions do increasingly appear to fit the definition of illiberalism. On matters such as LGBT equality, the Republican Party has remained strikingly consistent in its opposition over the course of this century. The Democratic Party as we know has come to embrace equality. Both parties have moved in opposite directions in terms of espousing cultural superiority, which I am guessing means that of those of European ancestry. The Republican Party is considerably more prone to invoke religion, whereas the Democratic Party of today is no different than at the start of the century. Given that fewer Americans identify with any particular religion, and the percentage of agnostics and atheists has increased, that has been an interesting tack for the Republican Party to take. It's pretty interesting to view the summary. There's plenty of information to digest. But the bottom line is that the Republican Party is indeed apparently considerably more authoritarian than it once was even a mere 20 years ago.

The data and summary can be accessed at the V-Dem Institute's website. If nothing else, the summary itself is pretty concise. Thankfully the data are public, and I am sure that others will examine it and scrutinize the findings. If nothing else, it gives the public an idea of what has happened in our particular political system, and may offer something of a snapshot of the ability of our particular system to function.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Election Media Literacy Reminder

The US is set to vote for a potentially new President, along with a number of down ballot contests and initiatives, all the way to the local level. The election is really underway already, as large numbers of Americans have cast their votes either in person or via mail in ballots. As any of us might remember from elections past over the course of this still-young century, all it takes is one outrageous headline to essentially "blow up" in order to alter the trajectory of an election. 

With that in mind, my advice is actually pretty simple. Stick to relatively mainstream sources. If you can subscribe to what is essentially a national newspaper (e.g., Washington Post, New York Times), do so. If you can't and are at a workplace or educational institution that has access to these sources, take advantage. Find at least one mainstream international news source that has some mainstream credibility. I rely a lot on The Guardian, which is a UK based independent news source. I also recommend bookmarking news aggregators like Memeorandum or use aggregator apps like Google News. Beyond that, try to read sources that are reputable but have varying editorial slants. CNN is pretty much middle of the road. Washington Post is likewise, although its columnists will run the gamut from neoconservative to rather liberal. My own bias is to avoid most of the columnists, unless I have grown familiar with their work and I trust them (whether or not I am likely to agree with their conclusions is another matter). Have at least one financial news source in your bookmarks. Forbes works for me. It's slant is somewhat conservative, but it is reliable. Pressed for time? I find Axios worth bookmarking. Its articles are brief, no-nonsense, and cut to the chase. Ultimately, the idea is to have a mix of sources that vary somewhat in editorial slant so that you are not in a bubble (or what we used to call 20 years ago, an echo chamber). 

I can't emphasize enough sticking to mainstream sources. My reasoning again is fairly simple. A source like Washington Post, Axios, or CNN vet articles for reliability before publishing. If the claims made in an article can't be verified, the story typically doesn't run. That vetting process is far from perfect, but it usually works. Their stock in trade is reliability, after all. The other thing that seems more like a corollary is that mainstream sites are highly unlikely to sensationalize. Yes, news sources want you to read them and view their videos, or find their YouTube channel. But, they also want readers or viewers to stick around for the long haul. There may be a subset of an audience that can be taken in by the latest sensationalized headline (another story for another time), but most of us are going to tune out if we are unable to trust the news site to provide accurate information. I stick to sources I can trust. Bottom line to me is that if a source is unfamiliar, I think twice before clicking a link. If the headline seems too outrageous, I think twice. So should you.

A personal anecdote might help. In early 2017, not long after the 2016 election had come and gone, and Trump had become President, I noticed a site called Axios appear on my aggregators constantly. I'd never heard of it before. Needless to say, I was highly suspicious. However, I noticed the headlines seemed fairly neutral, and the stories appeared to be well-vetted, and tracked pretty well with the rest of the mainstream. When I'm pressed for time, it's become one of my go-to news sites. But I was definitely skeptical at first.

Finally, there is little doubt that for those getting their news from social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, the algorithms are just simply jacked, for a lack of a better way of phrasing it. Sites that really are not reputable tend to end up getting their headlines to trend easily. Whether or not we wish to accept that alleged news sites that trade in sensationalism, clickbait, and outright conspiracy theories are simply "more engaging" to social media users, and that is merely a marketplace of ideas scenario I will leave to your discretion. My recommendation is that this would probably be a good time to tune out from social media for a few weeks. Log off Facebook. Log off Twitter. You get the idea. Bots, whether or domestic or foreign, are boosting and in the process mainstreaming content that is detrimental to a functional democratic process, sowing division and doubt in the process. My best guess is the next few days and weeks will get really ugly really fast, and stay that way until we have a clear picture of the final vote count. I wish that were not the case, but here we are. 

Be careful.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Friendly reminder

Are you an aspiring academic? Hoping to make your mark on your area of interest? Hoping to have a claim to fame? Make sure that your potential collaborators are actually interested in looking carefully at the data you are collecting and analyzing. If they aren't? You are the one who gets hurt, if things go sideways. Speaking from experience. The good news is that life goes on. Finding your way after things go wrong is tricky. It is doable. You will find people who understand. You'll also have to live with detractors for a lifetime. Goes with the territory.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Postscript to the preceding: This isn't the first odd mistake for Zhang

 Previously, I noted that the latest Zhang et al. (2020) paper had at least one serious error: that instead of computing a difference between reaction time for aggressive (weapon) images and neutral images, the authors used simply the reaction times to the weapon images as the DV. Hence, we as the readers are left with a misleading set of analyses and a potentially misleading narrative. Fortunately, the authors had already shared their data, which made detecting the error fairly easy. Why the reaction times for the neutral images and then the difference scores (which would have been the real DV) didn't have their own column is only something that the authors can answer.

Oftentimes, with this lab (as is probably the case with others), it is often difficult to glean whether or not variables are entered and computed correctly based on the information appearing in a published paper. Whether those omissions are a bit of sleight of hand or simple human error or misunderstanding is often difficult to deduce. However, sometimes authors make it easy for the readers to see for themselves that the authors have goofed. I have found some rather odd analyses in which IVs were not quite analyzed correctly as well as DVs.

One of my favorite papers published by the Zhang lab, just for the sheer madness it contained, was the on published in Personality and Individual Differences nearly five years ago. That was the first, and I think only, effort these authors made to replicate and extend research on the weapons priming effect (itself a fairly controversial topic). The DV situation appears okay in the initial analysis under section 4.1. However, where things fall apart (aside from a grossly undersized df, given sample size) was that the authors only examined the difference in reaction times between aggressive and neutral words under the weapon prime condition, while completely ignoring the neutral prime condition. The authors eventually did correct the df for that section in a pretty massive corrigendum. However, they never did address that they had done the wrong analysis in order to establish a weapons priming effect. They really should have read more carefully Anderson et al. (1998) in order to do so. The authors needed to establish that the difference between rts in the treatment and control conditions were larger, and in the predicted direction, when participants saw weapons than when they were presented with neutral images. Also left unanswered was the nagging question of the three-way interaction effect that was a duplicate of another three-way interaction effect in another paper authored by this same research team. I got the impression that the current editor in chief at Personality and Individual Differences was not much in the mood for dealing with this mess to begin with, and that any superficial corrections were extracted from Zhang et al. (2016) was probably a minor miracle. In theory, since the authors changed a single digit in the F-test for the three-way interaction, perhaps the point is now moot. I am still concerned that a certain amount of self-plagiarism happened, but the editor-in-chief chose to let it go. As was the case with the most recent article in question, the Zhang lab had enlisted an established American aggression researcher, Phillip Rodkin. Rodkin's wheelhouse was more in the area of bullying, and not so much media violence, so this seemed like an odd choice for a collaborator for a media violence paper. I honestly don't know how much access Rodkin had to the original data, nor could I comment on whether he would have known what to look for when checking out the analyses. He had already been deceased for a while when this paper was published. Hence, we will likely never know.

The Zhang et al. (2016) paper shared something strikingly in common with a paper in which Zhang was second author, and Rodkin also was a collaborator. There was a three-way interaction that was deemed nonsignificant in each paper, although according to a Statcheck analysis, the three-way interaction would have to have been statistically significant based on what was originally reported in each paper. Publication of duplicate analyses is presumably serious business, but apparently the powers that be can overlook such matters. Perhaps the corrigendum on the Zhang et al (2016) paper makes the point moot, as I noted earlier. The erratum in the other paper entirely ignores the pesky issue of that three-way interaction effect. 

As I have probably said too many times, I find this state of affairs to be very disappointing. As someone who still finds media violence research interesting (although definitely from the standpoint of a skeptic), I treasure efforts by researchers who study non-WEIRD populations. As an educator and researcher who is very eager to decolonize my particular areas of expertise, I would ordinarily welcome work coming out of China. Unfortunately, the work from this lab is so chock full of errors that it is best left uncited. Hold out for the real thing. Hold out for competently and ethically conducted work. 


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Zhang Lab rides again

If you've read this blog long enough, you're familiar with the work of Qian Zhang of Southwest University in China. You are already well aware that there are some serious problems with many of the papers he has co-authored (either as a first author or a more secondary co-author) over the years. His more recent papers have been on the surface of higher quality, but it sometimes doesn't take much to realize that there are still substantial problems. Bottom line is that if you see his name mentioned here, it's not good news.

Case in point: Dr. Zhang has a new paper out that purports to examine the link between viewing prosocial cartoons and a reduction in aggressive cognition and behavior. I was alerted to this paper by Joe Hilgard. On the surface, a simple Statcheck run looked good. Initially I lamented the lack of tangible data to reproduce the analyses. Dr. Hilgard pointed me to where the data were stored (which kudos to this lab for doing so). I ported the dataset into my current version of jamovi and successfully reproduced the analyses reported in the paper. So far so good. Then I had that sinking realization something was still wrong. The data set only contained data for reaction time data for weapon images (which the authors use for the DV in the paper and analyses - a fact Dr. Hilgard had already arrived at before I did my work here). However, the authors should also had data on reaction times for neutral images that were not included in the data set. The appropriate DV would have been a difference score between reaction times for aggressive images (in this case, weapons) and reaction times neutral images. That difference score would be the proper measure of accessibility of aggressive cognitions. 

As of this writing, the last author on the paper had been contacted, and I trust this last author to do the right thing here. At bare minimum, a reanalysis needs to be conducted in order to ascertain that prosocial cartoons really did lead to a decrease in the relative accessibility of aggressive cognition. As of now, the paper cannot adequately address that claim. There is this funny gray area between what we consider published and in press. The paper has already been accepted, and some version of it has been made available online. My hope is that the last author, an American researcher with a solid reputation, is able to get the matter resolved satisfactorily, however that turns out. Maybe a simple correction suffices. It is possible that a properly calculated cognitive DV yields the same basic findings as the incorrect cognitive DV. If it does not, then many of the conclusions of the paper may need to be rethought and rewritten. If so, the topic is of enough theoretical and practical interest that perhaps a sympathetic editor and publisher will still be okay with a corrigendum, regardless of how the ultimate findings flush out. If a retraction is necessary at this stage, it would be far less painful than after it is already officially in print. This is a matter of making sure that those of us who might still be tempted to conduct meta-analyses in this broad area of media violence have the correct findings when estimating effect sizes, that those who might be using this literature to advocate for policy changes have the right information before coming across as grossly uninformed. For the good of the order, I hope this matter is taken care of quickly. In the meantime, I'd warn against citing this particular paper unless and until at least some sort of correction has been published. 


Monday, October 5, 2020

One lesson from living through a pandemic: you're not that special

There seems to be a certain hubris among a subset of humanity in which members of that subset perceive that fundamental laws of nature just don't apply to them. If I were a clinician, I would be tempted to try my hand at a bit of armchair diagnosis. I shall refrain. Instead, let's try something a bit more down to earth.

We as a species, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc. are capable of contracting and transmitting this very highly novel coronavirus dubbed COVID-19. It's a virus that knows no boundaries. We know that in the absence of effective treatments and vaccines (which will take a while to be developed to the point to where they can be given the green light for mass distribution), we have only a few means available to us in order to have some hope of slowing down transmission of this virus: masks/face coverings, physical distancing, and proper hand hygiene (and probably proper hygiene in general). Under the worst case scenario, curfews and lockdowns can be used to reduce transmission, but those are probably best used sparingly and only when the other available options are not working. Those are the facts on the ground. That's our reality. Some nations have really risen to the occasion, and have generally minimized transmission and death rates. Their experiences are hardly perfection (South Korea and Germany for example are still prone to spikes in community spread), but generally about as good as we could expect under these particular circumstances. Clear, consistent leadership certainly helped. In the US, we did not quite have that experience. As a result, there is some argument as to whether we ever quite emerged from the first wave of this pandemic. 

Trump, who for the time being is the US President, downplayed the seriousness of the virus. He mocked basic safety precautions (something I find ironic, given that any biographical info I am aware of about him suggests he's something of a germaphobe). He's encouraged his hardcore followers to also mock safety precautions and to essentially throw caution to the wind. In the interim, he's held in recent weeks a number of outdoor rallies without physical distancing or masks, indoor rallies and events without physical distancing or masks, denigrated testing, and treated the pandemic as if it is essentially a thing of the past. The reception for the most recent Supreme Court nominee was arguably a superspreader event. Over the last week or so, numerous individuals associated with that event and the debate have tested positive. Trump himself tested positive, although questions about when he first tested positive are unclear as of this writing. There's a reason why the Bidens have been getting tested since the first Presidential debate a mere week ago. 

Since I am not a medical doctor, I will gladly defer to those who have that expertise. What I do know as a layperson is that the combination of medications Trump is currently receiving since both his admission and arguably premature discharge from Walter Reed suggest his case was and is very serious. Footage I saw of him on the White House balcony made it clear that he seemed to be struggling to breathe and that he might be in some pain or discomfort. As someone who has experienced pneumonia before, I have some idea of what it feels like to struggle to breathe. I had something going for me at the time: youth. I was in my early 30s and trying to finish up remaining PhD coursework before going to work on my dissertation prospectus. I was out of commission for two weeks. One course in particular I went from holding my own to wondering if I would pass. That I just barely missed an A was a minor miracle, and one for which I am grateful. I made one mistake early on in my diagnosis: I didn't take it seriously enough, and that set me back. I was lucky to not end up hospitalized, or worse. But I recovered. After a good while, I was back to baseline. But that really did take time. So, the pneumonia that is common with COVID-19 is something I understand fairly intimately. I also understand that the meds Trump takes now are ones that can have all sorts of physical and psychological side effects that should give all of us pause. And yet, Trump is continuing to act as if he is somehow special. He was claiming in footage shot Monday that he thought he might even be immune to COVID-19. Thing is, he's still infected and still contagious. 

As to what the future holds for Trump? I have no idea. What I think I can predict is that Trump has modeled a set of attitudes and behaviors that at least his most ardent followers will acquire (if they haven't already) and imitate. In other words, this is just basic observational learning in action. I have little doubt that we'll see more brazen attempts to flout expert medical advice, as the role model himself has led the way. I have little doubt that his followers will show disdain for those who aren't "moving on" to Trump's and their satisfaction. It'll probably get worse now. What I'd say as a professional is that whatever opinions they wish to hold, the facts are what they are. One does not need to be a virologist to understand that when a person with no natural immunity and no willingness to use whatever preventative measures might actually work, the virus is highly likely to win every time. In other words, none of us is special. The sooner we grasp that basic concept, the better. 

I am reminded how zombie films (and TV series) tend to work. One typical subplot is for one of the characters to get bitten and to hide the fact that he or she has been bitten from the other characters in the group of survivors. Maybe they genuinely think they will somehow beat the zombie virus and be okay. Maybe they're too afraid that they'll be cast out (which would be an adaptive group strategy). The end result (even in comedic zombie films and TV satires) is not good. 

We're not that special. Prevention is no guarantee of survival, but hubris is one nearly certain way to needlessly end up in harm's way. Stay safe.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

What happens when a public figure fails to take a major health threat seriously?

 At this point, we're well aware of Trump's current health situation. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 apparently late last week (although the exact timeline has been disputed), and was admitted to Walter Reed late in the day Friday. We know he has been administered some medications that are normally recommended for patients with severe symptoms, and that at least two of those medications are still in experimental trials. As COVID-19 is highly infectious and more deadly than a typical flu, we would expect an outpouring of well-wishing for his recovery. In fact, I wish Trump well, and hope he recovers. I say that as someone who has known at least four people (so far) who, in spite of taking appropriate precautions caught this novel coronavirus anyway.

What is interesting, but also quite predictable, is that the public is taking into account personal responsibility in their reaction to Trump's health crisis:


Keep in mind that although taking appropriate preventive measures (using masks/face coverings, physical distancing of at least six feet, and proper hand hygiene) is no guarantee of avoiding infection, it helps. Failure to take those precautions, failure to take this virus seriously, is naturally going to be seen as practically inviting oneself to become infected. Really, this is just an application of basic attribution theory, going back to the work of Kelley. People make internal attributions for the plight of others when it appears as if the consequences of behavior are predictable, and that the individual made little to no attempt to avoid harm. In other words, a significant portion of the public have concluded that Trump brought this on himself. Whether or not that is necessarily fair is another conversation for another time. It is what it is, in the meantime.