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Study: Jon Stewart leaving ‘Daily Show’ helped Trump win presidency

It's no joke.

(Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Comedy Central)
  • A new study used Comedy Central ratings and political survey data to examine whether the departure of Jon Stewart from "The Daily Show" had a causal effect on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
  • The researchers found that it had a 1.1 percent effect on voter turnout, an amount that could've proved decisive in such a narrow election.
  • The researchers used causal language in the study, but cautioned that Stewart's departure was one of many factors that decided the election.

Jon Stewart was once asked to describe his importance as a political commentator on The Daily Show. He replied: "On a scale of zero to 10, I'd go with a zero, not very important."

That was dead wrong, according to a new study that suggests Stewart's 2015 departure from the left-leaning show caused not only a drop in ratings, but also a slight drop in voter turnout in the 2016 presidential election – enough to tip the scales in favor of President Donald Trump.

It sounds like a wild claim. But study authors Ethan Portera and Thomas J. Wood pointed to past research showing that many Americans who aren't politically engaged often consume news from comedy sources, in particular from "The Daily Show". Other research shows that audiences are more likely to view political figures and issues in a more favorable light when presented in a comedic context, rather than, say, on a network news show. So, considering Jon Stewart's replacement Trevor Noah has received lower ratings and fewer viewers, it stands to reason that some Americans were less inclined to get out and vote Democrat in 2016.

The researchers suggest Stewart's key influence over the nation was to mobilize voters, not necessarily to make liberal converts out of conservatives.

"'The Daily Show's' ratings decline was negatively associated with voter turnout — suggesting that Stewart's role in the election is understood in relationship to mobilization, rather than persuasion."

The study authors also examined Stephen Colbert's departure from his eponymous show in 2014, finding similar but weaker effects. To conduct their analysis, the researchers used data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) and extensive ratings data for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, The Colbert Report, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, Key and Peele, South Park, and Inside Amy Schumer.

Using a 'difference in differences' statistical approach, the analysis incorporated socioeconomic controls – including educational attainment, racial composition, and income — and also controlled for the general decline of all Comedy Central shows during this period. The results showed that only The Daily Show seemed to have influenced voter behavior in the 2016 presidential election.

"By our estimate, the ratings decline at The Daily Show was associated with a 1.11 percentage point increase in Republican presidential vote share at the county level, significant by conventional standards," adding that the observations "cannot be explained away by broader trends in cable and Comedy Central."

Credit: Wood & Portera

It seems a small but influential share of Stewart's audience might've been a decisive factor in the election.

"... as previous studies have shown, the viewers Stewart and Colbert most affected were otherwise politically disengaged and uninformed," the researchers wrote. "As Zaller (2004) demonstrates, such voters are precisely the most likely voters to shift partisan allegiances between presidential elections. When the shows' ratings declined and those viewers went elsewhere, their politics likely changed as a result."

Although the study authors suggest that Jon Stewart's departure was causal in the outcome of the 2016 election, they do note that it wasn't the only factor.

"Stewart's departure and the decline in ratings data, we contend, was one among many factors that possibly contributed to the surprising election result of 2016," they wrote.

What about "The Colbert Report"?

Why did Colbert's Comedy Central show not seem to have the same effects as Stewart's?

One reason might be the peculiar mechanics of satire and parody. Audiences of The Colbert Report might have been able to enjoy the satire no matter their politics; Republicans might've been able to laugh at the tongue-in-cheek jokes delivered by Colbert's hard-right character, while Democrats might've laughed because they felt "in" on the joke. Here's how the study authors described it:

"While The Daily Show was unflappably sincere in its political and partisans commitments, The Colbert Report was entirely satirical," the authors wrote. "Decoding the humor and parsing out the political content of the latter likely required a great deal more political sophistication than the former. Not watching The Colbert Report may have depressed one's interest in politics generally; but not watching The Daily Show may have depressed one's interest in supporting the Democratic Party, and opposing the Republican Party, specifically."

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If you don't practice accountability at work you're letting the formula for success slip right through your hands.

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  • What is accountability? It's a tool for improving performance and, once its potential is thoroughly understood, it can be leveraged at scale in any team or organization.
  • In this lesson for leaders, managers, and individuals, Shideh Sedgh Bina, a founding partner of Insigniam and the editor-in-chief of IQ Insigniam Quarterly, explains why it is so crucial to success.
  • Learn to recognize the mindset of accountable versus unaccountable people, then use Shideh's guided exercise as a template for your next post-project accountability analysis—whether that project was a success or it fell short, it's equally important to do the reckoning.

What if Middle-earth was in Pakistan?

Iranian Tolkien scholar finds intriguing parallels between subcontinental geography and famous map of Middle-earth

Could this former river island in the Indus have inspired Tolkien to create Cair Andros, the ship-shaped island in the Anduin river?

Image: Mohammad Reza Kamali, reproduced with kind permission
Strange Maps
  • J.R.R. Tolkien himself hinted that his stories are set in a really ancient version of Europe.
  • But a fantasy realm can be inspired by a variety of places; and perhaps so is Tolkien's world.
  • These intriguing similarities with Asian topography show that it may be time to 'decolonise' Middle-earth.
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Giant whale sharks have teeth on their eyeballs

The ocean's largest shark relies on vision more than previously believed.

An eight-metre-long Whale shark swims with other fish at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on February 26, 2010 in Motobu, Okinawa, Japan.

Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Japanese researchers discovered that the whale shark has "tiny teeth"—dermal denticles—protecting its eyes from abrasion.
  • They also found the shark is able to retract its eyeball into the eye socket.
  • Their research confirms that this giant fish relies on vision more than previously believed.
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A massive star has mysteriously vanished, confusing astronomers

A gigantic star makes off during an eight-year gap in observations.

Image source: ESO/L. Calçada
Surprising Science
  • The massive star in the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy seems to have disappeared between 2011 and 2019.
  • It's likely that it erupted, but could it have collapsed into a black hole without a supernova?
  • Maybe it's still there, but much less luminous and/or covered by dust.

A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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