Cell Phones and Conflict

Jan H. Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach have a new paper (via the Monkey Cage) arguing that cell phone coverage makes collective action easier, and that includes making political violence easier. Good for them. A post-doc and a PhD candidate in the APSR looking at an interesting problem, relevant to the “Did Twitter cause the Arab Spring” question, and using novel data (particularly novel on the independent variable side and using the up-and-coming UCDP Georeferenced Event Dataset on the dependent variable side). Their study uses data from Africa, but its larger implications seem apparent.

The question you have to ask yourself is whether cell phone coverage makes it more likely that “an event” will be recorded in the dataset, a dataset derived from “print, radio, and television news reports from regional newswires, major and local newspapers, secondary sources, and expert knowledge….” If not, then data is missing in a biased way. The cell phones are not increasing violence through collective action but rather through greater reporting on violence that was happening irrespective of cell phones. Depending on the model specification, cell phones might be associated with a 50% increase in reports of a violent event (involving at least one death), from a baseline of about 1% to 1.5%. (Other models report larger effects.) That bump seems plausible to me from cell phone reporting alone, without any collective action effect. I do not know what the situation is like in Africa, but in India and Pakistan it is routine for political violence in the countryside to be under-reported. I assume the effect is multiplied when it is in the countryside, without cell phone coverage, and one has to walk 4 miles to make a phone call about it.

These researchers are aware of this problem and they try to control for it. You can read their discussion on page 6 (particularly footnote 13) and see if you think they resolve it. Also, they are aware that cell phones cover areas with more people and more people are likely to be associated with more violence. I’m a little more comfortable with their strategy for controlling for population (see page 8), though who knows if population’s effect on violence is linear? The fact that when they conduct a robustness check of using a logarithmic transformation of population it weakens their findings for the effect of cell phone coverage “somewhat” (p. 8, footnote 18) is worrisome to me.

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The Curious Case of Curiosity: Why Don’t We Care More?

Curiosity Photograph of Mars

Monday, August 6th, 2012, 1:32 AM EST. NASA space rover Curiosity completes its 352 million-mile journey in space and lands, successfully, on the planet Mars. NASA experts claim that the rover’s advanced technology, which will transmit unprecedented amounts of information about the Red Planet back to Earth, makes realistic President Obama’s goal of landing human beings on Mars by the 2030s. The whole endeavor, to paraphrase our Vice President, is a big deal. So why don’t we care more about it? Why is any other news story topping pictures from Curiosity–such as the one above of a mountain on Mars?

I recognize that it is difficult to isolate any particular reason for the existence of such an intangible trend. A complete explanation would include a combination of certain sticky realities about our society in 2012, a discussion of historical patterns, and time contingent considerations such as the global recession. However, I do think it is worthwhile to highlight one factor in particular which I think has caused us (that is, Americans living in the year 2012) to underrate the importance of an event like the Mars landing. Specifically, NASA has failed to provide a satisfactory raison d’etre in the post-Cold War era. Consequently, without the Soviet Union, interest in and valuation of NASA and its ongoing missions has drastically declined.

Ever since its inception 54 years ago, NASA’s existence was justified to the American public, at least implicitly, in two ways: exploration and functionalism. The former would usher in a new golden age of discovery. The latter would provide positive externalities to other parts of American society. Delicious powdered fruit drink aside, NASA and its missions contributed to countless American scientific achievements. Most famously, of course, NASA played an important, if mostly symbolic, role for the United States in the Cold War, highlighted by the moon landing. Ironically, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, NASA also served as a conduit for cooperation between the two nations. Regardless, during the Cold War, NASA derived most of its functionalist support from its unique ability to “defeat” the Soviets time and time again.

After the Cold War ended, NASA’s raison d’etre was reduced almost entirely to space exploration. Those who had supported NASA for the positive externalities it provided had mainly done so because of the Soviet Union. Without the Soviets, their interest in NASA and its missions fell off. Two groups comprised the Americans who had supported NASA because of the explicit space exploration agenda: those with unconditional support and those with contingent support. When the economy suffered, the latter group expressed a new-found dissatisfaction with NASA politically (through a push to cut NASA funding during lean times) and commercially (through a lack of interest). These Americans simply dropped NASA from the agenda in favor of more pressing matters–the economy, health care, etc.

As a result, the only remaining Americans with serious interest in the continuing missions of NASA were a small minority–a small part of one group that had supported NASA during the Cold War. Media outlets report stories according to the public interest that they believe those stories will receive. Consequently, we receive stories based on commercial viability, not on significance. Thus, we might hear about the initial rover landing but miss out on the real story: the findings of the rover in the upcoming days, weeks, and months. The effect becomes self-reinforcing since we then interpret the commercially viable stories as the significant ones, which the media then picks up on, and so on.

Even if the ongoing story may only capture the imagination of a minority of Americans (I am, admittedly, one of these Americans), Curiosity rolls on. And, thankfully, NASA has extensive coverage of its findings, with accompanying pictures and video.

For more of his thoughts on space exploration and other things he actually knows about, follow William on Twitter