–submitted by Ben Hebebrand; photo by John Bonsett-Veal
At the April 20 meeting of the Rotary Club of Madison, our guest speaker, UW-Madison Professor Dietram Scheufele (pictured here at right with Club President Ellsworth Brown) presented an interesting insight into how polarized opinions have become as a result of an increasingly greater tendency for like-minded segments of our population — tribes, if you will — to subscribe to the news and information that fits their ideology.
Under the title of “Is the U.S. Increasingly Anti-Science?” Professor Scheufele claims that about half the U.S. population agrees with global warming and the other half does not.
Among the primary reasons for this split in opinion is a tendency for humans to associate with those who think like us — a phenomenon that in recent times has led to our media becoming opinion-driven, as is evidenced by the rise of Fox News on one end of the spectrum and MSNBC on the other end.
Media outlets such as these “give people what they want to believe in,” said Scheufele, although the consumption of information and research should really be a non-partisan endeavor. Scheufele illustrated our nation’s increasing polarization with various examples, including a study of political blogs published on the Internet that feature tremendously high cross-referencing with like-minded political blogs, but hardly any crossover between different ideologies. “We don’t go by content; we go by category,” said Scheufele. Social media, Scheufele said, is based on a business model that gives the consumers what they want. He said steering Internet traffic to the opposite point of view or need or want “doesn’t sell.”
To break through this polarization, Scheufele suggested that one method to unite various constituents of our nation is to focus on bottom-line issues we can all agree on. In the case of global warming, Scheufele said it would be most likely that we could get behind the idea of investing in green energy so that we can export green energy technology to other nations. Global competitiveness, Scheufele said, is something we can agree on.
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