The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Truthy or Dare

August 6, 2008

If you’ve not done so, open up your Political Science & Politics and read James Fowler‘s article “The Colbert Bump in Campaign Donations: More Truthful than Truthy.” In this brilliant piece, Fowler empirically tests whether support exists for Stephen Colbert‘s claim that Congresspersons who appear on his late-night comedy show receive a “bump” in their approval ratings.

Now I need to go back through my video archive to make sure I’m correct in thinking the correct indicator of approval ratings, according to Colbert, is opinion polls (Fowler uses donations to Congressional campaigns as a proxy). That notwithstanding, I think this article is brilliant for three reasons.

1) It’s brilliantly, refreshingly funny – bravo to PS&Politics for publishing not only a scholarly article about political satire, but one written in a satirical style. (Fowler peppers his descriptions of selection effects and Mann Whitney U nonparametric tests with such gems as: “I’m sure Stephen will be pleased there is a ‘man’ in his statistical test – though, what kind of a man calls himself Whitney?”

2) It’s an article born to make students excited about political science: a simple empirical test of a popular empirical claim, with all the boring theory-relevance evacuated. Of course, because it does absolutely nothing to build theory, many journals might not have published it. But I’m delighted it was published, because it advances our understanding of how popular culture impacts political outcomes. More political scientists should focus on using our methodological tools to test popular assumptions. Who says polisci has to be boring?

3) Also, the article introduces political scientists who don’t watch the Colbert Report (I was surprised to learn that the average viewership is only about 1.3 million) to a popular phenomenon that nonetheless exerts “a disproportionate real-world influence” due to its elite demographic; while introducing Colbert fans to a dispassionate analysis (minus hype) of the show’s impact on real-world politics.

Fowler’s methodology is creative and intriguing. Instead of simply tracing the actual before-and-after campaign success of Colbert’s interviewees, he controls for selection effects by pair-matching Colbert Report guests with similar political candidates who did not go on the show. His none-too-counterintuitive finding is that the Colbert “bump” in fact exists, but only for Democrats.

Read the whole thing here.

+ posts

Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.