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Taking Advantage of the Ebola Scare By Taking Advantage of the Ebola Scare

On Friday, the Austin-American Statesman ran one of those dreadful space-filling stories that the media seem drawn to like moths to a flame. Staff reporter Jonathan Tilove’s  page A1, above the fold story entitled “Why Ebola is a perfect storm for Texas Democrats,” is the print journalism equivalent of the kind of click-bait faux-think pieces that infest websites like Buzzfeed, and that are so nicely satirized by The Onion’s “Clickhole.”

The story, (mostly behind the Stateman’s paywall) is an airy editorial that carries itself aloft on the reductionist B.S. argument that the current Ebola panic is “bad for Democrats” in Texas, all because a patient happened to die of Ebola in Dallas.

This is an example of what happens when reporters who are at a loss to make stories out of the actual news decide to manufacture some news in order to fill column inches. One can easily imagine a journalist spit-balling story ideas in a bull session with a few colleagues. “Oh, if only I could figure out how to squeeze the word ‘Ebola’ into this story of the November 4, 2014 general election. Because Ebola. And Ebola.”

There may well be internal “metrics” that show newspapers with the word “Ebola” on the front page show an X% spike in same-day sales, or that news websites with the word “Ebola” see an increase in page views. Or whatever.

To summarize, Mr. Tilove’s story is built on the general observations of various experts in the until-now invisible academic field of election epidemiology. The article is based most prominently on a gross generalization of findings by John Alford of Rice University, John Hibbing and Kevin Smith of the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and Christopher Frederico at the University of Minnesota’s Center For the Study of Political Psychology.

As has been noted in other sources, people who self-identify as conservative are arguably or potentially more likely to be emotionally activated by basal endocrine responses to fear and disgust than are people who self-identify as liberal. To the extent that one can draw conclusions from statistical variations in human responses to stress, conservatives could be said to be slightly less capable of logical reasoning in the face of fear than the general population, and could arguably be appealed to more effectively by fearmongering.

But I suspect that Drs. Alford, Hibbing, Smith, Frederico, and others would be the first to caution against extrapolating from general observations about fine-grade statistical variants in intellectual capacity among voters to any sort of specific predictions about outcomes in particular elections, and for all I know, the people studying the field of political physiology might be unhappy about the way that their research is being portrayed in this news story.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that conservatives are more prone to being “spooked,” and are, as a group, less capable of rational thought than liberals (As a liberal, nothing makes me happier than being able to cite sociological studies that show liberals really are smarter, more intellectually evolved, and more competent than conservatives, so of course, all this statistical analysis is wonderfully affirming).

Does it follow from this premise that Texas Democrats are in trouble because a West African visitor to Dallas was unlucky enough to have Ebola, and was further unlucky enough to experience the dispiriting crappy health care offered by a Texas hospital? Couldn’t the narrative just as easily been “Texas Democrats Poised to Benefit from Mismanagement of Ebola By Conservative Policymakers?”

An accumulation of unrelated circumstances and facts (even when all these circumstances occur at roughly the same time) does not mean that these circumstances and facts are causally related to each other. An irrational fear of Ebola does not translate into political support for specific Republican candidates in the 2014 election in Texas.

The only reason why Mr. Tilove’s story is a narrative about the “poor hapless Democrats,” is because Mr. Tilove decided to slant the story as a narrative about the “poor hapless Democrats.” The story wears its political assumptions and subjective bias on its sleeve. I could just as easily write a story subtitled, “Fear of spiders, gas station restrooms, and clowns among stupid voters could create backlash against Democrats within blocs of stupid voting groups, experts say.”

In fact, as a useful corrective to Mr. Tilove’s embarrassingly awful feature story, let me redraft it as follows:


“Disgusting” bathrooms in Dallas, elsewhere, could create backlash against rational voting, expert says

Filthy gas station restrooms are causing particularly dull-witted voters to side with the Republican Party, just weeks before the statewide election.

The tendency among the managers of independently-owned local gas stations to neglect routine maintenance and cleaning is helping feed doubts among particularly obtuse voters about Democratic chances.

The political problem that filthy gas station restrooms pose for Democrats in Texas, and in midterm elections nationally, could be even more fundamental. The story of experiencing a particularly rank bathroom, in which a desperate driver stops at a “mom-n-pop” convenience store, only to be repulsed by the conditions in the rattrap semi-detached shed behind the air pumps, is the quintessential issue more likely to provoke a gut reaction from conservatives than liberals, and draw them to the polls, according to Rice University political scientist John Alford, a cutting edge researcher on the physiology of ideology.

Republican Voters Swayed By Vomit, Diarrhea

“There are two things that conservatives are attuned to more and react to more — signals of threat and signals of disgust — so [filthy gas station restrooms are] a gift to the Republicans in this election that you’ve got exactly those two things dominating the national news,” Alford said. “Every time someone in the news is talking about projectile vomiting and diarrhea, I think, `The Republican vote just went up another half percent.’”

Alford’s work, published in leading peer-reviewed science journals that are totally not made up, we swear, is part of a growing body of work cutting across the fields of political science, psychology and biology linking conservatism to more of a survival instinct.

“[Restroom cleanliness is] a very well-positioned issue for the Republicans,” Howard Lavine, a University of Minnesota political scientist, said of the issue. “It activates both a threat and disgust response.”

A national study found a correlation between a state’s high level of “contamination disgust” — for example, people who were loath to drink from someone else’s soda or eat at a restaurant where the cook has a cold — and support for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, according to a 2011 article in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Social psychologist Ravi Iyer, chief data scientist for Ranker.com — a website where 18 million participants rate things and where a toilet seat was recently ranked as the fifth-dirtiest thing you encounter every day — said fear of public restrooms is most pronounced in the conservative South.

Fear and disgust

Americans generally disapprove of the way Obama has handled the public restroom cleanliness crisis so far, according to an Associated Press poll released Thursday. Republicans in Texas have seized on questions about the federal response to restroom sanitation.

For conservatives, the Obama administration’s failure to enforce more frequent restroom disinfecting is of a piece with its failures to contain the Islamic State militant group or secure the southwestern border or to defend the White House perimeter from an intruder last month who made it to the East Room before being tackled by the Secret Service.

Texas’ voter identification law, which the Obama administration is fighting in court and Abbott is defending, comes under the same rubric. For conservatives, “ballot security has the same kind of emotional appeal,” said Alford, who was chosen by Abbott to be the state’s expert witness in the state and federal redistricting case (not that he’s biased against Democrats, or anything).

Alford’s research with John Hibbing and Kevin Smith, both affiliated with the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and other collaborators, have found that conservatives tend to have a stronger startle reflex than liberals.

In an experiment they wrote about in 2008 in the journal Science, the researchers used eye movement sensors to determine that the political conservatives in their study tended to have a harder involuntary blink response to a startling noise, indicating a heightened “fear state.”

In this and another experiment, Alford and his colleagues also used sensors on the subjects’ fingers to measure changes in the skin’s conductance of electricity, a precursor to sweat, when they were confronted with a threatening image, such as a snake ready to strike, or with a disgusting image, such as maggots in an open sore.

In both cases, conservatives tended to have a stronger response to the images, suggesting that at least at some basic biological level, conservatives are just not very smart.

The stronger reaction to threat, the researchers found, is correlated with a more conservative stance on questions of national defense, border security and immigration, while the heightened sense of disgust correlates with a more conservative stance on gay marriage, abortion and other social issues.

‘Physiological perfect storm’

Both physiological responses are rooted in the survival instinct. A sudden noise might alert one to an imminent danger. “The role of disgust in the avoidance of disease, one of the primary sources of mortality over the years, makes it essential to survival,” Alford, Smith, Hibbing and three co-authors wrote in a 2011 article in PLOS One, the largest open-access science journal that I was able to find through Ask Jeeves.

“When you make people fearful about disease, they become more wary of outsiders,” said Christopher Federico, a scholar at the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology. “It is how our distant ancestors would have coped with disease back when the evolutionary process was very harsh.”

While filthy gas station restrooms might particularly rouse conservatives, Federico said it might also awaken that latent instinct across a broader swath of the electorate.

For Texas Democrats, the emergence of filthy restrooms as an issue in an already challenging year is nothing but bad news.

“It’s a kind of physiological perfect storm,” Alford said. “I can’t think of an issue that you could pick that would be worse (for Democrats) for uniting those two traits. You could be physiologically disturbed by filthy restrooms if you are a `threat conservative,’ or if you are a `disgust conservative,’ or, if you have both of those reactions.”

“If the Obama administration had acted decisively and been lucky [with respect to filthy restrooms], and basically handled this, it could have suppressed conservative reaction,” Alford said. But now, he said, “so close to the election, you get this kind of emotional reaction, there is basically no time to dampen that down by a successful policy response. It’s there, and this becomes the physiological backdrop to the decisions about turnout and vote direction and also the political discussion.”

Boo to the Statesman for running an Abbott campaign ad in the guise of a news story.


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