The Value of Research

I don’t believe we’re a nation of frightened people. I have listened to Donald Trump playing the fear card, the one students of history know well: start shouting about external evil-doers if you want to get people to stop thinking. It’s a very old trick, as old, you might say as the Bible. You imagine yourself as the anointed tribe—it helps if a representative had a private, unrecorded conversation with God first—and everyone who doesn’t share your religion and way of seeing the world is trying to destroy you. You build walls, you build armies and bombs, you constantly shout about those outsiders who are out to destroy you.
One of history’s masters of xenophobia declared that “The efficiency of a truly national leader consists primarily in preventing the division of the attention of a people, and always in concentrating it on a single enemy”(cited in Fairclough)—in Donald Trump’s case, on Muslims—though truthfully, any social group would do; it took Trump a few weeks to recognize that Muslim terrorists were more frightening than Mexican rapists.
I have been slightly surprised that Trump has tricked newscasters/journalists into invoking the same rhetoric—people like Chris Cuomo and Joe Scarborough with most of their invited “experts” regularly reiterating the line that Americans are afraid of foreign terrorist. It’s as if Trump says it; then news commentators repeat it as news. Americans are frightened. The same ventriloquism (Freire)about Weapons of Mass Destruction occasioned the invasion of Iraq.
I am certain that few of my friends would say they are even mildly frightened of foreign terrorist. Worrying about some ISIS influenced nut committing a violent act in my vicinity seems close to insanity—a radical disconnect between what’s “in-here” and what’s “out-there.” As an educator, with some affiliations with social anthropology (essentially, the study of group think), I decided to investigate the disjunction between a wide swath of political commentators and my perception about fear in America. I am also teaching a class in writing and research, so I thought an inquiry might demonstrate to my students the value of research.
I first constructed a survey. It wasn’t sophisticated and had a few major flaws, but my colleague, Karen Nulton, pointed them out and suggested some additions. Like a good writer, I listened to her politely, agreed with some of her suggestions and decided to ditch others.
Although I don’t consider myself a survey specialist, this one wasn’t bad. It left room for disaggregation—one of the most interesting effects of a survey. I posted the survey on Facebook, asked my Facebook friends to repost it, posted it on WPA-l, a listserve for writing program administrators, and within a few days, I had about 500 responses. I had 44% Democrats, 4% Republicans, 22% Independents, 19% Democratic Socialists (!!!), 5% Socialists, and a wonderful 9% other.
Overall, 9% of my now 547 respondents registered their fear of foreign extremists as either high or very high, not quite justifying the somewhat mindless claim that “Americans are afraid.”
I was confirmed and astonished. From where had these newscasters like Joe Scarborough and Chris Cuomo obtained their information? From a little Internet research, I found that most references to the fear in American cited The Chapman University Survey of American Fears, Wave 2 .  Chapman reported Americans’ fears (n=1541) of terrorist’s attacks at 44%.  Whooee! What a difference (9% vs 44%)! 
My first survey was clearly biased toward academics (the WPA-listserv) and my liberal leading friends on Facebook, so I decided to try another, relatively unbiased survey population. I created another survey that included age—a feature I should have put on my first survey. Rather than distribute it through my liberal-oriented friends, I asked Bob Mann to post a link to my new survey on his blog, Something Like the Truth.  Bob is a friend from Louisiana. Bob is an extraordinary thinker. He holds the Manship Chair in Journalism at Louisiana State University.  He has worked on both the Democratic (Communications Director to Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco) and Republican (State Director to Republican Senator  John Breaux) side. He has been elected to the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame. Bob thinks from multiple directions.
I asked Bob to post a link to my new survey on his popular blog. Within a week, I had another 498 responses. These responses were different:  I had 19% Republicans, 34% democrats; 28% Independents; 9% Democratic Socialists; 3% Socialists; and 7% other. 
This was better. The responses within and between the surveys are fascinating. I haven’t finished disaggregating the responses, but in this brief (joke) report, I will focus mostly on the second survey with some segues back to the first.
The most surprising difference is gender. In my first overly liberal survey (n=547), 70% of the respondents were female.  29% were male. One percent were other. In my second (somewhat unbiased) survey (n=498), 65% were female; 35% were male; 1% were other.
In either case (we’re talking about large numbers), women are almost on a 2:1 ratio more inclined to respond to a survey on apprehension; my suspicion is that they are more inclined to respond to surveys. You can take this where you will: I’ll bet that I can discover a fair amount of research that describes women as more community centered and men as more me-centered.
Because I don’t want this to be an essay rather than a post, I’m going to zero in on other more remarkable comparisons.
First, I will look at the liberal-biased compared to the un-liberal-biased reports of fear of external extremists.  The liberal-biased had as high or very high 9%. Disaggregated, Independents had as high or very high 7.5%; Democrats had 8%; Republicans had 49%; Democratic Socialists had 4%.
In my unliberal-biased (via Bob Mann) (n=498), 24% reported a high or very high level of fear of external extremists. Disaggregated, Independents had 19% high or very high fear; Democrats had 16%; Republicans had 60% (reinforcing, surprisingly, the Chapman Report—who  did they ask?); Democratic Socialists had 8% (none in the Very High category); Socialists [n=16] had 0%; Communists [n=2] had 0%. 
Below is a table of those comparisons:
Reporting High or Very High Fear Levels of External Terrorists
Biased (n=547)
Unbiased (n=498)
Democratic Socialists
I can leave readers to draw their own conclusions on the degree to which each social group’s mental image of reality corresponds to, let’s say, brute reality—what’s “out there” – as if anything is unmediated “out there” (see Eagleman; James). I decided to link these fear percentages to risk assessment theory—the probability of a kind of event happening to an individual.
There is a surfeit of readily available websites analyzing risk factors—most of them in close agreement with one another. One in five of us will die from a stroke. One in seven from cancer.  One in 5,000 from electrocution. One in 18,000 from being murdered. One in 18, 500 from a car accident (Hassan). One source claims a person “is more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist” (Research)Risk theorists estimate that the chance of a U.S. citizen being killed by a terrorist is 1 in 3.5 million, 1 in 20 million if you discount 9/11 (Sanburn and Worland).
Several writers have commented on the additional disconnect between risk assessment and where the United States directs its resources—following, as is always necessary, the money trail—who makes the most profit from what kind of story is told? And always more interesting—why do we believe the stories we chose to believe?
This entry is already too long for a blog entry, but I had told respondents I would post preliminary data. So much more is available from my survey—like gender, age, and religious issues or the correlations between people who prioritize economic inequality and their fear factors.
I hope some of you find this interesting. I mostly hope my students do: that they can see that any of us can do some research to check out facile claims—in particular, the kinds that characterize political discourse. The obvious overall conclusion is that the popular media claim that Americans are afraid of terrorist is bullshit. Clearly, the media get some viewers excited by this claim. So they keep repeating it.
Works Cited
“The Chapman University Survey on American Fears.”  2015. Web. January 13 2016.
Eagleman, David. Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011. Print.
Fairclough, Norman. Language and Power. Language in Social Life. Ed. Candlin, Christopher. New York: Longman, 1989. Print.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. 1970. Trans. Ramos, Myra Bergman. 20th Anniversary Edition ed. New York: Continuum, 1995. Print.
Hassan, Zeeshan ul. “A Data Scientist Explains Odds of Dying in a Terrorist Attack.”  2015. Web. January 16 2016.
James, William. The Principles of Psychology. 1890. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.
Research, Global. “The Terrorism Statistics Every American Needs to Hear.” 2015. Web. January 18 2016.
Sanburn, Josh, and Justin Worland. “The State of Terror Defenses in the U.S.” Time 2015. Web. January 17 2016.
Postscript: Later, I will more completely disaggregate my results—comparing, for example, fears by age group, by gender, by religious knowledge (degree of familiarity with Christianity or Islam).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *