Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Great Escape, Plus: Mind the Gap

Oxford is an ancient university and so certain workarounds are required to bring it into compliance with the 21st century. For example, in the good old days, if you were in the basement of a building and a fire broke out, you were content just to die of burns or smoke inhalation while silently chanting in Latin. Or, if you were lucky, you scrambled up a fire escape only to find your exit blocked by a chair against the door. Not any more. Now, courtesy of signs like that one above in Nuffield College, your escape route is clear: You simply climb to safety, emerging from the wainscoting like a rat.

I spent much of the lecture I attended in that room yesterday distractedly wondering if the panel would pop open and a ragtag line of dirty-faced survivors would crawl out. Finally, when I could take it no longer, I got up and moved a heavy table against the wall, ensuring that the proceedings wouldn't be interrupted. Now let me see, did I push the table away when the lecture was over?

Just kidding! Of course I didn't do that. I concentrated on the lecture, a talk by Paul Kellstedt, a political science professor from Texas A&M University, on sabbatical with his family here at Oxford. The lecture was entitled "The Macro Politics of a Gender Gap" and while much of it was lost on me (I start to sweat when I hear words like "variable" and "coefficient"), it was interesting.

Kelltstedt's central finding is that there is a gender gap between American men and women when it comes to political policy. Women are, on average, 2 to 5 points more "liberal" than men. What's interesting is that this relatively small number pales in comparison to other gender gaps: There are much bigger gender differences when it comes to party identification, political participation, presidential approval and presidential candidate selection. These gender gaps are growing while the macropolitical gender gap is staying the same. In other words, what you would expect to be the bedrock foundation for decisions about politics--a person's stance towards various policies (on the environment, welfare, etc.)--does not correlate directly to which candidates people support or how they vote.

I'm sure I'm mangling this completely.

Paul didn't mention it yesterday, but here's another bit of research that resulted in counterintuitive findings: The more you know about global warming, the less motivated you are to do something about it. Kellstedt and colleagues surveyed 1,093 American and asked them about global warming. "More informed respondents both feel less personally responsible for global warming, and also show less concern for global warming," they wrote in the journal Risk Analysis.

Said Kellstedt: "The findings that the more informed respondents were less concerned about global warming, and that they felt less personally responsible for it, did surprise us. We expected just the opposite."

Too bad there's no fire escape to help the planet escape from global warming.


mark from alexandria said...

It would have been interesting to know what the Texas A&M prof made of the gender issues associated with the Democratic Presidential campaign with regard to the breakdown of women's preferences for Obama or Clinton. I guess the real test of that won't come until one of them is left standing and the general election comes along.

Regarding the global warming stats, I've worked in a field which has given me more exposure than many people to the environmental issues associated with global warming. I think that many people who are better informed may realize that there is little that they personally can do to make a difference. The solutions are macro solutions and really must be global. It seems to me that fluorescent lightbulbs and unplugging chargers during the day may make one feel good, but the really hard choices and enforcement must be undertaken by national governments and through international agreements.

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Candadai Tirumalai said...

I think Nuffield College has a strong post-graduate emphasis in matters of economic, social, and political policy, where one is more likely to hear the kind of lecture you attended. Perhaps it is the London School of Economics of Oxford.

Ken said...

i think you'll find the London School of Economics is the Nuffield College of London... albeit that it comes up short.

Sarah Laurence Blog said...

Paul's research sounds fascinating if the results somewhat disturbing. We'd like to think that ideology guides voting and an informed population would care about the planet.

Sadly, voters aren't always rational actors. Also there is the free rider problem, making selfish behavior rational for personal gain even if it hurts the collective good.

I can't quote Al Gore exactly, but he said something like people should not move from denial to dismay on global warming.

People can make a difference in small steps by reducing dependency on fossil fuels and pressuring their government. The advanced industrial countries, like the USA, are the worst offenders. Improving CAFE standards, alternative fuels, car pooling, florescent bulbs, protecting green spaces, cutting waste etc. It would work if we all did it, especially Americans.

But I agree with Mark that the solution will require macro management and international cooperation.

I'd add that we should also think of mitigation as some of the poorest nations, like flood-prone Bangladesh, may be hit the worst.

What we need is vision, leadership and a new administration!

John Kelly said...

Leadership, vision and a new administration. Well, we know we'll at least be getting the last of those. Let's hope we get the others, too.

I wonder if the macro solutions can be helped by micro solutions, that is, will people be more willing to swallow a certain amount of macro hardship (like more expensive gas) if they've bought into things like low-energy lightbulbs?

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