Information Age Education
   Issue Number 160
April, 2015   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, five free books based on the newsletters are available: Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

This is the 7th IAE Newsletter in a series on Credibility and Validity of Information.


Credibility and Validity of Information
Part 7: Advocacy Groups

David Moursund
Emeritus Professor of Education
University of Oregon

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed it's the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead; an American cultural anthropologist, who was frequently a featured author and speaker in the mass media throughout the 1960s and 1970s; 1901-1978.)

“Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right.” (Jane Goodall; English anthropologist; 1934-.)

The Free Dictionary defines advocacy as:

Noun—The act of pleading or arguing in favor of something, such as a cause, idea, or policy; active support.

I developed the Information Age Education company to support my advocacy work in improving education at all levels and throughout the world. I make use of my time, knowledge, skills, some of my money, and volunteers to carry out IAE advocacy. I make use of the Web, email, and social networking to help accomplish my advocacy work. The U.S. Constitution guarantees me the freedom to carry out these activities.

An advocacy group is composed of people who have joined together in a common cause. The cause may include a single issue or a collection of issues. If you belong to a political party, you belong to a multi-issue advocacy group. You may not be in favor of each of the issues that your party supports, but you agree with the underlying goals and principles of the party.

I think of all persons as being advocates for some or many of the things they believe in. Such individuality is an important aspect of humans. However, a number of advocacy groups build supportive cases that are particularly one-sided and/or lacking in credibility and validity. Some advocacy groups receive very large amounts of financial support from a small number of very wealthy individuals. Such groups are able to use their resources to shape public opinion through use of the media.

This and the next IAE newsletter explore advocacy groups in terms of the credibility and validity of the information they provide to their members and to others.

Margaret Mead

The quote from Margaret Mead at the beginning of this newsletter captures the essence of a long-used approach to advocacy. A person or a small group of people work together to advocate changes that they strongly believe should be made. They dedicate time, energy, and personal resources to convince others to follow their lead.

Margaret Mead practiced advocacy by using her writing and speaking abilities. In public speaking, information is presented to an audience. The audience members can form their own opinions about the credibility of the speaker. As they follow the chain of arguments in the presentation, they can do some mental checking on the validity of the information being presented. If the speaker also takes questions or interacts with the audience in other ways, the audience has additional opportunities to decide on the credibility of the speaker and the validity of the information being presented. We know, of course, that a very dynamic speaker can sometimes overwhelm the rationality of an audience.

An author’s writings provide readers with an opportunity to more carefully analyze the information being presented. A learned paper or book typically contains references to other research work that can lend validity to the paper or book. Nowadays, it is relatively easy for a reader to check out these references to assess their credibility and validity.

In summary, considerable openness more often occurs when a person uses public speaking interaction with an audience and/or learned publications to further their own advocacy ideas. However, we are now living at a time when a decreasing amount of openness exists in some advocacy areas.

The U.S. National Elections in November 2014

Political advocacy includes activities such as lobbying, media campaigns, commissioning and publishing research. Political advocacy groups work to influence decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions.

You may have felt troubled by the vast amount of money spent on the 2014 state and national elections in the U.S. I suppose I was most bothered by reports that some individuals or very small groups spent hundreds of millions of dollars to support their interests. In Oregon, my home state, I noticed that a modest number of large out-of-state agricultural companies and related interests spent a huge amount in defeating a Genetically Modified Food (GMO) labeling measure that was on the ballot.

The New York Times provides an indication of how much political advocacy money we may see in the 2016 presidential election:

The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history (Confessore, 1/26/2015).

Why might we be troubled by this situation? After all, such wealthy people are merely using their personal resources to advance causes they believe in. According to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, a corporation has some of the rights of a person, and these corporations were merely using their own resources to advance their cause.

Part of my answer lies in the statement in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “All men [all people] are created equal.” Although our voting system has some major flaws, the general idea is “one voter, one vote.” Advocacy groups with massive resources seem somewhat contrary to these fundamental ideas. I have a strong feeling that our democratic system and process are being manipulated and somewhat marginalized by the big spenders.

A Growing “Science” of Spending Money to Influence People

A “science” now exists of effectively using huge amounts of money to influence the outcome of an election. These theories were certainly put to the test this past November. You can be sure that as the big spenders continue their research and analyze data from their past efforts, their effectiveness will increase.

The growing science of election spending is closely related to the science of advertising goods and services. We all experience an ongoing barrage of ads in the various media. The advertisers believe that such ads are a cost effective way to increase their sales and profits.

In early 2015, 30-second television ads for Super Bowl XLIX were selling for $4.5 million. In addition, an advertiser likely spends well over a million dollars developing such an ad. This ad may well have reached over a hundred million people. As I watched the game, I contemplated whether the advertiser was getting six or seven cents of value from my viewing an ad.

A Case Study

Voters in the State of Washington voted on an initiative to authorize Charter Schools in 2012 (Au & Ferrare, 2014). The initiative obtained a spot on the ballot through a petition signature drive funded by its supporters. It passed by obtaining about 50.7 percent of the votes cast in the general election.

Approximately 98 percent of the funds raised to support the measure were contributed by 21 large donors. Table 1 lists the top10 donors (Au & Ferrare, 2014). Some of the names will be familiar to you, and you may wonder why others were interested in supporting the creation of Charter Schools in Washington.


Donor Amount
1 Bill Gates Jr.—Microsoft cofounder and current chairman. [Microsoft is headquartered in Washington.] $3,053,000
2 Alice Walton—heiress; daughter of Wal-Mart founder, Sam Walton. $1,700,000
3 Vulcan Inc.—founded by Paul Allen, Microsoft cofounder. $1,600,000
4 Nicolas Hanauer—venture capitalist. $1,000,000
5 Mike Bezos—father of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. [Amazon is headquartered in Washington.] $500,000
6 Jackie Bezos—mother of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. $500,000
7 Connie Ballmer—wife of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. $500,000
8 Anne Dinning—managing director D.E. Shaw Investments. $250,000
9 Michael Wolf—Yahoo! Inc. board of directors. $250,000
10 Katherine Binder—EMFCO Holdings chairwoman. $250,000

Table 1: Yes On I-1240 campaign cash and in-kind contributions of $250k or more.

Quoting from the Implications and Conclusions part of the Au & Ferrare paper:

…our findings and analysis raise serious concerns regarding the disproportionate power of super wealthy individuals and their related philanthropic organizations relative to public education policy and the democratic decision-making process of individual voters. In the case of the most recent Washington State charter school Initiative 1240, it is clear to us that these wealthy individuals wielded an inordinate amount of power well beyond that of the average person in the state of Washington. Further, the power of these wealthy individuals extended largely from their vast resources and not because of any expertise on the subject of public education reform (Bosworth, 2011). As such, the passage of I-1240 in Washington State raises concerns that billionaires and their philanthropies have become what Karier (1972) referred to as a virtual “fourth branch of government” that is able to carry its reform agenda and ideology forward into fully realized education policy through sheer force of material and symbolic sponsorship, but with little public accountability. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Follow the Money, and Fact Checking

One might argue that every advocacy group presents its case and information in a biased manner. However, certainly some are much more blatant than others. The years of legal wrangling about the relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer provide a vista in which to explore how “big money” was used to protect the interests of tobacco companies against a steadily growing collection of scientific research.

Follow the Money

Today’s media make it possible for big-spending advocates for a cause to reach huge audiences. However, the Web makes it possible for people with very little financial resources to search for bias and to widely disseminate their own findings.

One way to search for possible bias in the work of advocacy groups is to “follow the money.” Where is the big money coming from? What financial gains might accrue to those providing the money?

I find it interesting to look at spending in various GMO elections in recent years. In Oregon’s 2014 vote, opponents to requiring GMO labeling spent over $20 million. Proponents spent about $8 million. The measure was defeated by a margin of less than a tenth of one percent. The top five contributors toward defeating the measure were all out-of-state corporations. They contributed about $15 million.

Most advertising can be thought of as efforts by advocacy groups to provide information that will influence the opinions of their audience. While we have some Truth in Advertising and Consumer Protection laws and organizations, for the most part consumers are on their own to decide on the credibility and validity of ads, and to make decisions based on the information they are receiving.

My advice to people is to be especially suspicious of well-financed political campaigns. Look beyond the ads that tell you over and over again how good their candidate or issue is—or, how bad and flawed their opposition is.

Fact Checking

My recent Google search of the term fact checking produced over 14 million hits. My search of fact checking.org produced about 3.8 million hits. An amazing amount of information is available. Warning: Unfortunately, some of the information is biased. This is a user beware situation. If you are serious about investigating a candidate or issue, use multiple sources and keep your thinking cap on!

As you investigate a particular candidate or issue, you can talk about what you find with your acquaintances. But, nowadays, “acquaintances” may include a very large number of “friends” in the social networking systems you use, your own personal mailing list, and other mailing lists you can access. Such grass roots approaches can effectively combat biased big money.

Final Remarks

The credibility and validity series started with the relatively simple issue of helping students understand the need for using credible, valid information in the papers they write and the presentations they give for courses they are taking.

As you can see, we have progressed into more complex issues. How do we help students to become responsible adult citizens in a world where they are constantly bombarded by biased ads and other information designed to shape their opinions? We want them to become thoughtful and critical consumers of information. This is a very challenging educational task.

The next issue in the credibility and validity series will continue the topic of advocacy. It will lay groundwork for the exploration of credibility and validity in a number of non-political areas.

References

Au, W., & Ferrare, J. (2014). Sponsors of policy: A network analysis of wealthy elites, their affiliated philanthropies, and charter school reform in Washington State. TC Record. Retrieved 1/3/2015 from http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentID=17387.

Bosworth, D. (2011). The cultural contradictions of philanthrocapitalism. Retrieved 1/18/2015 from http://paperity.org/p/23286854/the-cultural-contradictions-of-philanthrocapitalism.

Confessore, N. (1/26/2015). Koch brothers’ budget of $889 million for 2016 is on par with both parties’ spending. The New York Times. Retrieved 1/29/2015 from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/us/politics/kochs-plan-to-spend-900-million-on-2016-campaign.html?_r=0.

Karier, C. (1972). Testing for order and control in the corporate liberal state. Wiley Online Library. See http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1741-5446.1972.tb01274.x/abstract.


Acknowledgement

I want to thank Robert Blomeyer, a long time professional colleague and friend, for his encouragement to write this IAE Newsletter and his help in finding resources for it.

Author

David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and coeditor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books. In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell.
Email: moursund@uoregon.edu.

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.