HxA research associate Nick Phillips has published a new piece in The American Conservative on a recent Oxford study built on faulty science making waves and further dividing communities.
The study by Oxford University scientists, “Polarization, Partisanship and Junk News Consumption over Social Media in the US” purports to show that on social media, conservatives are far more likely than others to share “junk news.” However, as Phillips deftly outlines, the criteria fell short and the wave of media reports about the study itself amplified a misleading message that needlessly polarizes the academy and alienates large sections of the population.
From the piece:
It therefore matters quite a bit who bears the scarlet letter, since supposedly these are the people poisoning our body politic, and we’re all better off without purveyors and sharers of fake news. The incentives to apply the label with the imprimatur of “science” to an entire opposing segment of the political spectrum are thus very high.
Did Oxford fall prey to those incentives? To arrive at their finding that conservatives are more likely to share junk news, the study’s authors developed a set of criteria that websites must meet in order to be “junk,” and then examined what kinds of people shared links from those junk sites.
Studies like this one are dangerous because they needlessly polarize the academy, enlisting it in a political advocacy project that alienates large sections of the population. A recent Pew survey found that a majority of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. In 2015, just 37 percent of Republicans rated the effect of universities negatively; in 2017, that shot up to 58 percent.
The academy cannot afford to see this number rise any more if it wants to retain broad public authority. Professors and students may wish to turn our institutions of higher learning into progressive fortresses, but the result will be conservatives who build battering rams. Many academics may see themselves as part of The Resistance, but if that mission bleeds into the methodology of their scholarship, their legitimacy will be permanently damaged.
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