Social morphogenesis and the limitations of political modelling

“If we rely on past and present data to predict future events, the weakness of the model we use will reside in its capacity to cope with genuine novelty. One response to this might be to account for such novelty as once-in-a-lifetime chance occurrence. But one of the conclusions we might draw from the Centre for Social Ontology’s Social Morphogenesis project is that social novelty is being generated at an ever-increasing rate.”

— Source: Mark Carrigan

[Interesting discussion of the concept of novelty, using the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign for examples.  Brainstorming or scaffolding about novelty with the class is a tremendous way to introduce or conclude units!]

Finding Patterns in Political Money

If your U.S. Government class is up to Chapter 7: Campaigns and Voting, you’re probably discussing the ins and outs of campaign finance.  Want to take the discussion even further?  Try exploring some of the data sets annotated below.

The Anomaly Tracker from OpenSecrets tracks six kinds of money-in-politics data:

  1. Lawmakers sponsoring legislation that was lobbied by only one company or other organization whose employees or PAC also donated to the sponsoring lawmakers.
  2. Lawmakers receiving twice as much in contributions from their top donors as their next highest donors.
  3. Lawmakers receiving twice as much in contributions from their top donor industries as their next highest donor industries.
  4. Lawmakers receiving more than 50 percent of their itemized contributions from out of state.
  5. More than 50 percent of a committee or candidate’s spending is paid to a single vendor.
  6. PACs giving at least $7,500 to a candidate’s Leadership PAC but nothing to the candidate’s committee.

Of course, the existence of an anomaly is not by itself evidence of shenanigans!  But since patterns can be studied for systemic meaning, anomalies in those patterns should be investigated and explained.

There are other databases to explore that might shed light on political money.  One is the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections (DIME) at Stanford University which “contains over 100 million political contributions made by individuals and organizations to local, state, and federal elections spanning a period from 1979 to 2012. A corresponding database of candidates and committees provides additional information on state and federal elections.”

The other is the Money, Politics and Transparency database, which scores countries on five issues:

  1. Direct and Indirect Public Funding during Campaigns
  2. Restrictions on Contribution and Expenditure
  3. Reporting Requirements and Public Disclosure
  4. Third-Party Actors
  5. Monitoring and Enforcement
MPT scorecard for Thailand, Trinidad & Tobago, and Turkey
Each country has two scores: in law (which measures the strength of its existing regulations), and in practice (which measures how well the laws are enforced). The scores are then averaged and weighted to give a composite score.

Comparisons to other systems can help people figure out what works and what doesn’t in terms of keeping politics free from the corruption of money.  Both databases are funded in part by the Sunlight Foundation, which works to make governments open, transparent, and accountable.

[The featured image is a screen grab of Graph: Political Party Finances from WorldView Software’s U.S. Government.]

BulbgraphOnOffUse social media such as a Twitter hashtag to create a running stream of questions during lectures, then go back and discuss.

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How Do Polls Work?

By now, many of you have no doubt seen more presidential polling results than you ever wanted to see!  But too many people equate internet polls such as the one featured above (from with scientific polls conducted by major news organizations.  How can you tell which of them are valid measures of public opinion, and which are not?

Start with Project: Conducting a Poll in WorldView Software’s U.S. Government.  Try it out, and then critically evaluate the results.  Here are some guiding points for questions students should be asking about their data:

  1. What was the difference between the total population of people whose opinion they wanted to know and the number of people who actually answered the poll?
  2. Did people have a choice to take the poll or not?
  3. Could people respond to the poll more than once?
  4. Was one group of people more represented in the poll than another? Why or why not?
  5. How were the questions asked — did they notice they got a better response rate from one method over another, such as internet over in-person?
  6. How were the questions asked — did the questions use loaded language that hinted at the “right” answer?
  7. How were the questions asked — were they yes-or-no, multiple choice, etc.?
  8. and so on…

Then apply this methodology to the polls out there.  Count the differences between this poll from Breitbart (warning: overlay popup ad):

"You watched at home — now make your voice heard! Who won the third debate? Vote below to tell us who you believe was tonight’s winner: Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump"Donald Trump 52.82% (145,324 votes), Hillary Clinton 47.18% (129,785 votes)





and these polls, aggregated at RealClear Politics:

polling results from multiple polls

For a deeper dive into how polling works, visit the Pew Research Center’s Methods page.  There, you’ll find all sorts of information, such as how to figure out a poll’s margin of error.  Especially recommended reading: the overview “Flashpoints in Polling” by Claudia Deane, Courtney Kennedy, Scott Keeter and Kyley McGeeney.

UPDATE 12/06/2016: Very nice video from Scientific American explaining the math behind polling.

BulbgraphOnOffStudy questions can be used for formative assessment in the beginning of a lesson or for summative assessment at the end.

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‘In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts’

If you are interested in how the British view American elections watch the short, somewhat whimsical documentary, How to Win the U.S. Presidency … The film breaks down a presidential campaign into six basic subjects: Money, Celebrity, Religion, The Look, Family, and The Message … So with only seven subjects to cover in 50 minutes, the film feels fast-paced, yet informative.

Source: ‘In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts’

[Use in conjunction with WorldView Software’s U.S. Government, Chapter 7: Campaigns and Voting.  Extra credit for those who can identify the original slogan, the year, and the candidates involved!]

Truth v. Myth: Illegal immigrants must be stopped!

In light of the continuing legal concern with illegal immigration, most notably the anti-immigrant threats currently being voiced by Donald Trump, we’re re-posting a Truth v. Myth staple on i…

Source: Truth v. Myth: Illegal immigrants must be stopped!

Nice post on the value of having an historical perspective about immigration (both legal and illegal).  (For more background on the process of becoming a citizen, see WorldView Software’s Basic American History I, Project: Becoming a Citizen, U.S. Government, Project: Becoming a Citizen and Internet Project: Migration and Assimilation , and Civics, Theme: Naturalization Exam.)

Voting Methods

Democracies make decisions through popular votes.  However, it’s possible for different voting methods to impact the outcome!  Encourage your students to investigate and evaluate the pros and cons of these different methods, and to model elections.

In the United States, most political units are divided into single member/first-past-the-post (plurality) districts.  This means that the candidate to get the most votes gets to represent that district — winner takes all.  It doesn’t have to be more than 50% of the vote (a majority).  Other countries have adopted a different method: proportional representation.  In a proportional representation system, the political unit is not divided into districts.  Instead, people vote for parties, and the seats in the council or legislature are awarded to a party based on the percentage of the vote they received. (Refer to WorldView Software’s U.S. Government Chapter 6 Overview for more information on these two methods.)

The U.S. voting method rules encourage the development of two main parties, rather than lots of different parties, because voters don’t want to “waste” their votes.  This is known in political science as Duverger’s Law, after Maurice Duverger, the French scholar who did a great deal of empirical research on the evolution of political systems.  As Chuck McCutcheon writes, this has had a profound effect on presidential politics in the U.S.:

The only exception was billionaire H. Ross Perot in 1992, who challenged President George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton on a populist platform of slashing the budget deficit and letting voters decide big issues by referendum. Perot got 19 percent of the vote – but didn’t receive a plurality of voters in any states, giving him no electoral votes.

And that’s only two ways to vote — have your students investigate everything from eeny-meeny-miney-moe to Borda Counts.  The latter method is named after another French scholar, mathematician Jean-Charles de Borda, who developed the ranked preference voting system in the 18th century.

In a Borda Count, voter’s preferences are given an ordinal measure:  Each voter ranks all the options on the ballot in terms of what they would most like.  Each candidate (or alternative, if you’re not voting for people) gets 1 point for each last place vote received, 2 points for each next-to-last-place vote, and so on up to N votes for the first place, where N is the number of candidates or alternatives.  The option with the most points wins.

While this may seem terribly complicated, the truth is you may already be familiar with examples: a Borda count is used

  • by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to pick MVP major league baseball players
  • by the Heisman Trust to select the Heisman Trophy winner in college football

There are also variations on this basic concept.  For more on the subject of voting methods, check out this online book from the University of Alabama’s math department.

BulbgraphOnOffGive students who are struggling practice in analyzing information presented in maps, graphs, and charts with the graphical questions in each chapter.

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New for #Election2016: U.S. Government

We’ve added some great new presidential-election year elements to our program U.S. Government: An Interactive Approach.  Updates include explanations of developments in voting rights and restrictions and campaign finance.

For example, there’s a new map in Chapter 7: Campaigns and Voting called “Recent Changes in Voting Rights,” which discusses how voting rights and restrictions vary at the state level.

Political map of US showing recent voting legislation by state.
Political map of US showing recent voting legislation by state.

We’ve also updated the chapter overview with a new section on “Campaign Finance Since BRCA.” The update comes complete with additional study questions; chronology entries on Supreme Court cases such as McConnell, Citizens United, and McCutcheon; as well as glossary terms explaining concepts such as “dark money.”

In addition to the election-related updates, we’ve also added more information about government involvement in the economy:

  • Tutorial: Functions of the Federal Reserve
  • Case Study: U.S. Economic Policies: Costs and Benefits
  • Art: Command/Market Continuum

BulbgraphOnOffGive students who have advanced through the material the challenge of a tutorial: a series of image and document-based questions leading to an essay.

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