BR Blog

October 28, 2014 When Epidemic Hysteria Made Sense Claude S. Fischer

Drawing of Death bringing cholera.

As I write this post, it has been about three weeks since Thomas Duncan was diagnosed with Ebola in Texas. The media and political hysteria that has ensued in this country is amazing, statistically and historically. Unlike, say, tuberculosis or the flu, it is extremely hard to get infected with Ebola unless one is caring, without adequate protection, for an actively ill patient. Consider that none of the people who were living with Duncan show symptoms.

One person, Duncan himself, has died from Ebola in the United States in these three weeks. In contrast, during an average three-week period in the United States: 35 people die from tuberculosis; 3,200 from influenza and pneumonia (500 of those people under 65 years of age); 1,100 from suicide by gun; 650 from homicide by gun; 1,000 by alcoholic cirrhosis; and 1,900 by motor vehicle accident.[1] These deaths are not only vastly more numerous, they are much more contagious, either in a medical sense or in a sociological sense. Where are screaming headlines for those risks?

So much for the...

October 21, 2014 An Afterthought on Indyref Stephen Phelan

The ballot paper phrased the question with eloquent bluntness: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” Beneath were two blank boxes for the only two viable answers: “Yes” or “No.” On September 18, some 85 percent of eligible Scots turned out to answer one way or the other—the largest showing for any election held in the United Kingdom since 1918. This referendum was, as many said later, a victory for democracy, and a measure of just how engaged and invested a modern electorate can be when asked a big enough question. But the end result did not exactly settle the matter.

In the preceding months and weeks, the Yes/No debate had seemed to grow and spread beyond party politics, and even beyond standard constitutional positions. Non-nationalists were moved to mobilize for independence and non-unionists to defend the 307-year partnership between Scotland and England.

Scots on both sides broadly agreed that their own semi-devolved parliament and government should have greater legal and fiscal authority over the country’s affairs. But the population seemed divided between the Yes campaign’s promises of an economically secure state and the No camp’s dire warnings over taxes, tariffs, currency issues, and cross-border pension schemes. In Edinburgh before the vote, the Scottish playwright David Greig advanced the view that his countrymen and women were...

October 15, 2014 Conservatives Are Driving Americans Away from Religion Claude S. Fischer

Photograph: Brent Moore

In 2002, then-Berkeley (now-NYU) sociologist Michael Hout and I published a paper pointing out a new trend in Americans’ religious identity: A rapidly increasing proportion of survey respondents answered “no religion” when asked questions such as “What is your religious preference? Is it Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, some other religion, or no religion?” In the 1991 General Social Survey, about 7 percent answered no religion and in the 2000 GSS, 14 percent did. [1] We explained the trend this way:

the increase was not connected to a loss of religious piety, [but] it was connected to politics. In the 1990s many people who had weak attachments to religion and either moderate or liberal political views found themselves at odds with the conservative political agenda of the Christian Right and reacted by renouncing their weak attachment to organized religion.

If that is what religion is, most of the “Nones” seemed to be saying, count me out.

In the years since, the trend has continued, Nones reaching 20 percent in the 2012 GSS. And a good deal of research has also accumulated on the topic (some of it...

October 10, 2014 Trench Democracy in Public Administration #3: An Interview with Jamie Verbrugge Albert W. Dzur

This conversation is the eighth in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. Innovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future. 

Jamie Verbrugge is the city manager of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. Engaging residents in the work of government there is now routine, but it was not always so, and it still faces some resistance among a few elected officials. We talked recently about both how purposeful engagement is encouraged and what city managers can do to sustain it. Jamie begins our discussion by explaining why the city came to embrace public participation as a regular practice to help address stubborn community problems.

The Definition of Insanity

Brooklyn Park is a Northern suburb of Minneapolis. It is the sixth largest city in Minnesota and the second largest suburb in the metro area. Over the last twenty-five years it underwent the most dramatic demographic change in...

October 09, 2014 How Vocabulary Tests Get It Wrong Claude S. Fischer

Robyn Lee / Flickr.

As is now well-known, scores on “intelligence” tests rose strongly over the last few generations, world-wide—this is the “Flynn Effect.” One striking anomaly, however, appears in American data: slumping students’ scores on academic achievement tests like the SAT. Notes of the decline starting in the 1960s sparked a lot of concern and hand-wringing. A similar decline is evident among adult respondents to the General Social Survey. The GSS gives interviewees a 10-item, multiple choice vocabulary test. (Practically speaking, vocabulary tests yield pretty much the same results as intelligence tests.) In over 40 years of the survey, a pattern emerged: Correct scores rose from the generations born around 1900 to the generations born around 1950 and then dropped afterwards. Are recently-born cohorts dumber—or, at least, less literate—than their parents and grandparents?

A new study presented to the American Sociological Association in August by Shawn Dorius (Iowa State), Duane Alwin (Penn. State), and Juliana Pacheco (U. of Iowa) tested a hunch several researchers have had about the generational pattern in the GSS vocabulary test—that words...