Lying ain't easy at Luther

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There are so many things I enjoy about teaching political science at Luther College. And they all are related to one key element: the students. The group project my political science senior seminar class did is a great example of how our students, all our students, not just the ones I have the privilege to teach, make my job as professor more fun and more meaningful.

The political science senior seminar is a course for juniors and seniors in the major, and it is an opportunity for us professors to delve deeper into issues we are passionate and knowledgeable about in the political science discipline. This semester I chose to teach a course called Media and the Political Process, where we delve deeper into issues related to the role of media in society as a whole. More specifically the civic role media outlets play in establishing, creating and nurturing a healthy civic society. Given the current nationwide debate regarding fake news, we spent a lot of time discussing information literacy.

An element of this course is a group project that students pick based on some of the readings from the first few weeks in the semester. One of the readings was about the problem with fake polls and fake polling companies. After that reading, students decided they wanted to learn more about polling, survey and ways media outlets can manipulate poll data and frame the narrative. This is how the Norse Organization for Research Polling (NORP) was created. Their goal with NORP was to learn more about specific polling and survey techniques, better understand data analysis and visualization, and explore how to influence public opinion. That last one, how to influence public opinion, was the one goal I was a little uneasy about. They wanted to frame the narrative, use their surveys to create a specific story. In short, they wanted to lie a little.

We had a long discussion in class and decided that the group could frame the narrative, as long as they conducted legitimate and ethically sounds polls and surveys, used the real data to frame the narrative (i.e.: not make stuff up, but use the numbers they had in misleading ways), and did a presentation explaining what they did, why they did it, and how they did it. As I said, I was uneasy about allowing students to "kinda" lie in their group project. But because I had interactions with almost every single student in that course before, I felt confident they would take the job seriously, and they would question the ethical implications of framing and priming in reporting survey results.

I was optimistic about the project, but how much the students accomplished in so little time was beyond my expectations. They created job descriptions for themselves, divided up their responsibilities well, reacted to unexpected events in a professional manner and conducted various surveys, three of them with over 200 responses in a campus where students surely feel survey fatigue once in a while. I was very proud of the real work they did.

But I want to talk briefly about here is the "fake news" work that started the project. They started with a poll about the new Blue Turf, and the way they displayed the results was misleading at best. See it for yourself. 

Blue Turf graph


My students posted an intentionally misleading table to see how people reacted. We (the students and I) figured some people would see the result, read the small write-up and chalk it up to a "bad graph." The response was so quick, and the criticism came so swiftly, that the students had to go on damage control mode on the first week of their two-month group project. Current students started asking the group about their sampling techniques and statistical analysis. Alumni wrote on the Facebook post with the graph, criticizing the graph's design, calling out everyone involved. Faculty and staff asked the students about the project, providing constructive criticism and voicing concerns about the framing of the report about the poll. All this in less than one day. It turned out that lying to the Luther community was a little harder than my students thought it was going to be.

The main goal of this project, in the students' view, was to assess the level of information literacy on campus regarding poll/survey reporting. They learned very quickly that the Luther College community is extremely engaged, knowledgeable and willing to voice their concerns when they see something wrong in the media. They learned very quickly that students, faculty, staff and alumni possess the most important trait when it comes to information literacy: critical thinking skills.  

Pedro Dos Santos

Pedro Dos Santos

Pedro dos Santos is an assistant professor at Luther, teaching classes in political science and international studies. He is also the director of the International Studies Program. His research focus is Latin America, with a special interest in Brazilian politics and women's political representation in Brazil, his home country. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Kansas and has contributed to a number of edited volumes on Latin America, women and politics, and Brazilian politics. His scholarly work has also been published in Latin American Politics and Society, Politics & Gender, and Teorija in Praska.

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  • November 26 2017 at 3:48 pm
    Eric Hurley

    Sounds interesting, but I can't read the scale on the graph. Could you please improve the resolution.

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