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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @
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March 15, 2004

Republic.Press

Posted by Ernest Miller

The New York Times (reg. req.) reports on an amazing research finding - those who buy highly partisan books are likely to buy more highly partisan books! At least that is all I was able to get out of the article which hypes a rather pedestrian study (Study Finds a Nation of Polarized Readers). The article reports on a recent study by social networking guru Valdis Krebs. The study can be found here: Divided We Stand... Still. Would it kill the NY Times to include a link or URL? This study is a followup on an earlier report (Divided We Stand???) as well as a white paper on book networks (The Social Life of Books). From the study the NY Times is referring to:

From the New York Times Bestseller List, I selected political books as starting points for 'snowball sampling'. Two books are linked in the network if they were purchased by the same person -- "Customers who bought this book also bought: ". Many of the books have changed from last year but the overall pattern is the same. The pattern reveals two distinct clusters with dense internal ties. These political books are preaching to the converted. The extreme book titles on both sides reveal a focus on hate, instead of debate.

While interesting, just how surprising is this finding? First, the political books are selected from the New York Times Bestseller List. Not to knock bestseller lists, but what sort of books make it to the top? I doubt that audience-challenging, even-handed books of any complexity are likely to compete with simple-minded polemics that cater to existing prejudices.

Of course, if you are in market for buying partisan polemics, are you really interested in even-handed books? I would think it is sort of a self-selecting sample. That isn't the way Krebs looks at it though:

(Of course, it is always possible, he [Krebs] concedes, that undecided voters aren't reading political books at all, that they simply "can't stomach either side.")

My centrist political views may not be the norm, but I'm certainly not unique. I'm interested in real debate about issues, not simply confirmation of my own point of view. Consequently, I will no more spend money on Dude, Where's My Country? then on Deliver Us From Evil. Let's face it, most of these books are crap. All the rhetorical fallacies are there: straw man arguments, ad hominem attacks, and the ever-popular argumentum ad odium (argument directed to hatred), among others. Why would someone who is interested in honest debate be interested in these books? Maybe undecided voters are reading political books that, while less popular, are not partisan polemics.

Speaking of rhetorical fallacies ...

Mr. Krebs, who got similar results when he conducted the same experiment last year, calls this pattern the "echo chamber" effect: for the most part, he found, buyers of liberal books buy only other liberal books, while buyers of conservative books buy only other conservative books. This finding appears to buttress the argument made by Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, in his influential study "Republic.com" (Princeton University Press, 2001) that contemporary media and the Internet have abetted a culture of polarization, in which people primarily seek out points of view to which they already subscribe.

Does this study really buttress the argument of Cass Sunstein in Republic.com? I don't think so. Sunstein was complaining about the potential of too much personalizing of sources of information through the internet, such as a "daily me" newspaper. His concern was with new technologies, in particular, their potential for individual customization. I don't really recall Sunstein concerned about dead tree media. Now, it may be that internet polarization (even assuming such a thing) is increasing polarization in other media, but this study provides absolutely no evidence of this fact. Call me crazy, but I rather suspect that partisan political polemics through the ages have mostly appealed to partisans and were seldom purchased by the partisans on the other side of the argument. For example, I don't think that many copies of the abolitionist The Liberator sold in the antebellum South.

Unfortunately, we don't have Amazon's databases for much of our history. If similar databases do exist it would be interesting to see if they show a similar pattern. I, for one, would be most surprised if they showed that McGovernites were frequent purchasers of Nixonian apologias.

Of course, if the study does support Sunstein's argument, perhaps we should extend his call to have links to dissenting viewpoints not only the internet, but in books. Perhaps Michael Moore's publisher could include blurbs for Bill O'Reilly's books in Moore's latest. Or perhaps Sunstein's publisher's page of reviews for Republic.com could include some reviews that might have disagreed with Sunstein's conclusions? Now that would be an unplanned encounter.

via Furdlog (but don't read him, because he and I agree frequently)

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism | Culture | Freedom of Expression


COMMENTS

1. Cypherpunk on March 15, 2004 10:19 PM writes...

I think the relevance to Sunstein is that the new study further establishes that "partisans crave partisanship", that is, that people actively seek out information sources which reinforce, rather than challenge, their own views. Sunstein is worried that the net will facilitate this practice, making it even easier and more automatic. You won't even be aware of information that contradicts your views, until it is wrapped in a rebuttal/scorn package which allows you to easily reject it as false and fraudulent.

And keep in mind that one may agree with Sunstein that the net tends to increase polarization, without necessarily endorsing his prescription. Sometimes people oppose an analysis because they don't like where it leads. That's an intellectual error. It should be possible to debate whether the net will amplify an inherent human tendency towards politically biased views, without regard to what anyone might propose as a fix.

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2. Ernest Miller on March 15, 2004 11:15 PM writes...

Yes, that is Sunstein's concern. However, this evidence neither supports nor refutes his argument. We have no data on the partisanship of book purchasers prior to Amazon. Have people become more or less partisan over time? We don't know.

Sunstein also seems to miss other elements of our culture that may have increased partisanship, such as Fox News and talk radio. Look at the "authors" of many of the books in the study. Are they famous internet personalities or TV/radio/newspaper columnists? Seems to me this would indicate that our traditional media culture is at fault, not the "daily me."

And perhaps, if the prescription is wrong, there is something wrong with the analysis or framing of the question. People tend to read those who agree with them. This study has no evidence to indicate that anything, the internet or not, has amplified this inherent human tendency.

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