The chance to catch up with old friends—and maybe make some new ones—will probably always be the biggest draw, but alumni who return to campus for Alumni Weekend can also find a lot more to interest, entertain, and enlighten them than picnics, parades, and parties. This past May, Penn Alumni and the University’s various schools and centers mounted dozens of panels and lectures that featured alumni and faculty discussing just about everything under the sun—which shone brightly for much of the weekend.

What follows is a small sampling of talks that were worth staying inside for.—J.P.

The Un-Spin Cycle

Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is no stranger to debates about political manipulations. The former dean of the Annenberg School for Communication has written such highly regarded analyses of the spinning landscape as Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction, and Democracy; Packaging the Presidency: A History of Criticism of Presidential Campaign Advertising; and Eloquence in an Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking. In April, she and Brooks Jackson—the journalist with whom she founded the website—published a new book: unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation (Random House), whose own promotional literature pitches it as a “secret decoder ring for the 21st-century world of disinformation.”

On Friday afternoon of Alumni Weekend, Jamieson spoke about unSpun and offered “some cues to tell you when something is more likely to be factually problematic” to a group of alumni and other visitors in Van Pelt Library.

If you see an ad, and it’s scary, be wary. It’s not always true that scary ads are problematic. In fact, there are some things that we should be genuinely terrified about and the claims are absolutely accurate. In general, when you see wolves prowling around on screen, and they’re scary, and the [inter-cuts] show you a forest in half-light and now the wolves are scarier … In case you didn’t pick up that things are scary, then the music is scary—so scary music and scary wolves, scary inter-cuts, and now somebody says that John Kerry voted [in favor of] intelligence cuts after the first terrorist attack: Be wary. Because that’s literally true, but probably inferentially false if you hear about that after September 11 [because it actually refers to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center]. Now, maybe you didn’t hear it that way. That would be good. But the Annenberg Public Policy Center runs the National Annenberg Election Survey, which is the largest survey done by an academic institution, and we know over half the electorate thought it was true that John Kerry voted for intelligence cuts after September 11.

Another test: If you think about it and it seems really implausible, it probably is. Let’s think about September 11. The towers had come down; Pennsylvania is frightened; Philadelphia is frightened; we don’t know whether we’re going to be next; the country is terrified. You think that anybody, even the person with the least common sense you’ve ever known, would then say, “You know, I’m going to go vote against intelligence. I’m going to vote for intelligence cuts.”? No! But you see, there never was a place you could have tested implausibility, because you didn’t actually go through a process of analytically accepting the claim. You were being scared, and the claim slid through … now those things come together and you’ve got a surprising amount of the electorate thinking something that wouldn’t make sense if you tested it through plausibility. They were scared, we were scared.

And you notice that they were scared? Well here’s another principle: We think they are vulnerable to deception, but we don’t think we are. As social psychologists have known for a long time … experts make all the same mistakes that non-experts make. We have the same cognitive mechanism. As a result, we’re supposed to make mistakes too. One danger is that we’re perfectly confident we’re invulnerable—and as a result, we are vulnerable.

Let me give you another principle I mentioned earlier: Language does our thinking for us. I’ve authored into the context of the scholarly debate about whether there is fact or not, but here is the broader truth underlying the fact that language does our thinking for us, and it certainly does when you’re dealing with political advertising and politics. We know for example that when you say intact dilation and extraction, it sounds like a medical procedure, it sounds like doctor talk, it sounds like something that experts in that area ought to make a decision about. You wouldn’t ordinarily make decisions about intact dilation and extraction. It’s expert language. But call it partial-birth abortion, and you’re now in a trajectory in which you’re far more likely to take one ideological position than another. It doesn’t mean that one is spinning and the other isn’t; language is inevitably creating our sense of reality …

We took on Bush with the wolves ad. Now we’re going to take on the Democrats with There was an ad put together by and it showed a gun, an automatic weapon, and in the background of the ad you heard [she simulates gunfire] and it suggested that horrible things were going to happen because the assault-weapons ban had not been renewed. I have very intelligent, very well-educated friends who saw that ad and believed that the gun that was shown was going to be back on the streets as a result of the end of the assault-weapons ban … [But] the weapon they showed on the screen was already banned when the assault weapons ban came in and as a result was unaffected by it. I could make a plausible case for the assault weapons ban, even though it didn’t ban as many things as some people would have liked, but it’s very difficult when people assume that it did a lot of things that it didn’t do, to tell that that ad is frightening you in ways you didn’t need to be frightened. Maybe you should still be frightened about all this, but not based on that. Language tends to do our thinking for us. And we know people overgeneralize the scope of the assault weapons ban.

What politics has attempted to do since the beginning of politics is find labels that we’re willing to embrace, and attach them to things that they may not be legitimately attached to.—S.H.

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Alumni Weekend 2007
Photography by Addison Geary

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You can find streaming video and audio of panel discussions and lectures, an Alumni Weekend photo slideshow, and lots more, at the Alumni Weekend website.

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©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 6/28/07