Science can surprise us, challenging deeply held beliefs and pushing us toward more enlightened frontiers. Science can also just reaffirm our deeply held beliefs, giving us means to be slightly more obnoxious during cocktail-hour arguments — in this case, by providing numerical proof that members of Congress spend far too much time goading each other.
Harvard University professor Gary King, along with two graduate-student minions, came their conclusion — that members of Congress spend about a fourth of their time doing the political equivalent of “nanner nanner nanner” — by using software and almost 65,000 press releases sent out by Senators between 2005 and 2007. But to really appreciate what they did here, we must go back to the theory behind the experiment.
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According to the Washington Post, the research team started with the most excellently named Grand Unified Theory of Congressmen, which states that there are three main ways a member of Congress will express himself or herself. The first is credit-claiming, as in, “See that bridge? I did that. Boom.” The second is position-taking, as in, “I am on this side of an issue, because only idiots, the worst and probably loneliest of people would ever take another stance.” And the third is advertising, as in, “What smells so good in this swing district? Oh right, it’s me.”
But King noticed that press releases weren’t really confined to these three categories. There was a fourth wherein they just straight-up taunted the other side, as when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently proclaimed that “Republicans have shown they couldn’t care less about those who have the least.” So the team used the impressive-sounding process of general purpose computer-assisted clustering and conceptualization to automatically divide the press releases into one of the now four categories. Hence, the cocktail-hour ammunition. Go forth and quote voraciously.
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