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Rejecting Narratives: Data, Islam and Terrorism

This is a cross-post from anonymous mugwump

The Year of the Monkey

(As always, footnotes and bibliography are at the bottom of the post). Many of my friends in my ‘ideological camp’ do not seem too pleased with the rise of Vox, 538 and The Monkey Cage. I applaud it as an open break from some of the worst journalism we see. Op-ed writers will write streams about housing[1], immigration[2], foreign policy; and not utilise a pool of peer reviewed, robust empirical literature. Vox and 538 are reversing this trend. And I agree that they may sometimes present the literature through their own ideological lens – but once people accept a form of the scientific method, it’s very easy to have a conversation (and, of course, make sounder judgements).

This divide between journalism and the academic literature is not new. Back in 2010, The Monkey Cage was still a blog and, as always, they were writing a constant stream of posts which debunked journalists unsubstantiated ‘narratives’ by using the empirical literature. A year later, they came out with a constructive paper, the purpose of which was to help journalists. Often, journalists will place great emphasis on a speech, a presidential debate, gaffes etc – when the literature is fairly clear that this stuff doesn’t really matter. In a somewhat comical response to Sides, Francis Wilkinson wrote

…the media’s capacity for creating self-serving, fanciful political narratives is more constrained today than ever. An army of spoilsports — many with Ph.Ds in political science — has established camp on the banks of the Web… Take John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington who runs the annoyingly excellent Monkey Cage blog. The guy is a total downer.

Every time some reporter starts to have a little narrative fun, Sides gets all political science-y on them… Look, I’m basically on the side of the “narrative” guys. I enjoy making up half-baked theories and then sending them downstream and seeing what happens.

Data driven journalism is clearly a welcome response to this problem. On my side of the Atlantic, we haven’t really seen a comparable change in our press. I’m not about to make any claims about how many articles aren’t based on data (because I don’t have any data) but what I can say is that the problem still exists. One example is Iona King who wrote a rather inaccurate, unsubstantiated article about Yemen. She made claims about poverty, the views of Yemeni population and terrorism without citing a single study from a pool of research not only on terrorism, but specifically about Yemen. And rather than accept that the literature might have something to say on the matter (it does, and it says the complete opposite of her anecdotes), she was brazen enough to say that her personal experience trumped the literature, with a dash of anti-intellectualism:

Do read the rest of Mugwump’s post here