On petunias and whales: part 3

Read Part 1 and Part 2

I’ve outlined some of the issues and looked at one core issues with Dave’s argument. To move on I’ll need to quote some more of Dave’s post:

What is the chance that a novel/short/novella etc will come from someone who is politically outspoken, who loudly champions causes dear to the Left wing (for example, Gay marriage, affirmative action, abortion, militant feminism, pro-Socialism) or Right wing (for example Anti-abortion, the right to concealed carry, equality of opportunity not outcome, pro-death penalty)? Defining the open left/right thing is difficult, because what do you call someone who admits he is communist or a republican but pointedly avoids pontificating on it? That’s why I left proportions at a generous 0.15.

To Dave’s credit, he tells us a lot about his underlying assumptions. This is key to considering what his argument tells us. There are two issues here:

  1. How best to characterize those positions so we can get some good estimates from general population data?
  2. In what ways, relevant to Dave’s argument, are authors different from the general population?

I’ll deal with point 2 first as I reject the tyranny of mere numbers. Putting aside the political spectrum, authors differ from the general population in a key way: they express their ideas in public. Authors of science fiction and fantasy additionally deal with imagined worlds with imagined societies and hence also express their ideas (overtly or implied) about society in public in a way that most people don’t. This isn’t to say that every novel or short story is somehow a political manifesto or that a right-wing author can’t write a left-leaning book or vice-versa: it is just saying that authors do something that is unusual and is pertinent to point 1.

Put another way: “outspokeness” is a quality that Dave refers to which is politically relevant but which probably doesn’t work in the same way for authors as it does for random person picked out from the general population. Indeed it helps explain where a lot Puppy misconceptions might come from.

The notion of a left-wing/right-wing spectrum is an example of a latent variable – a parameter which we can’t observe directly but which we infer to exist as an explanation of a whole bunch of things that seem to correlate together. The spectrum allows us to collapse a whole bunch of diverse things and attitudes into one thing  – where you sit on a spectrum. It is necessarily a gross simplification and inevitably every individual is something of a counter-example. However, it works if used with caution.

Dave Freer (and possibly the Puppy’s in general) go awry when applying a common sense view about political belief to an unusual group. Normally we would equate outspokeness with intensity of belief. For example, many people may support gun control but we would assume a person who campaigns on the issue has stronger views on the issue than somebody who doesn’t. If authors in general are more outspoken than non-authors then this proxy variable for where a person lies on a political spectrum is going to lead to misleading results.

Back to point 1. How can we classify people on a left-right spectrum and how does this apply to the specific group we are looking at?

The Pew Research Center offers an interesting way of looking at that spectrum. They even offer a quiz to help classify yourself. The PRC typology offers some solid data to support Dave’s 15% estimate – the “Solid Liberal” category really does represent 15% of the population based on Pew’s data. So while Dave presents it as if he just plucked it out of the air, he really does have a good foundation for that figure.

Now I have to pause because the whole argument has a whopping objection at this point which I will address briefly and then ignore :). The Hugo is nominally a world award. The Pew typology is one for the USA. In reality the main non-USA nation to be regularly represented is the UK. While Britain has many things in common with the US including a left-right political axis, the associations between positions on that spectrum and given issues do not work the same. The most notable exception is gun control – British conservatives tend to view it far more favorably than American conservatives even. Yeah but what-are-you-going-to-do. Including Brits (not to mention everybody else) makes the analysis way to difficult and there enough Americans nominated every year that bias should be detectable (if it exists) just by looking at nominees from the filling in the Mexico-Canada sandwich.

To dive deeper we need to look at the issues Dave raises:

  • same-sex marriage
  • affirmative action
  • abortion
  • feminism
  • gun rights
  • death penalty

I’ve left out the items which are more principles or would lead to question-begging and also listed each one in terms of issues that have their own spectrum e.g. just “abortion” rather than pro- or anti-, just “feminism” rather than “militant feminism”.

The pew data let’s us look at some of those issues in turn:

Same-sex marriage: That splits 54% in favor to 39% against in the Pew data. Notably the Republican leaning “Young outsiders” also tend to being in favor.

Affirmative action: for college admissions the split in the general population is 63% (“good thing”) to 30%. Again the “Young outsiders” tend to see it as a good thing.

Abortion: A more even split 51% in favor of legality in most cases against 49%. This category is actually one that has some interesting dynamic on the left with one group in the typology “Faith and Family Left” leaning towards the anti-abortion side.

Feminism: unfortunately this is too broad and poorly defined a category. No Pew data as such in the typology set.

Gun rights: Basically a 50-50 split with a neat progression from left-to-right. In the Pew data at least, gun rights is the simplest marker for position on the left-right US spectrum. Also the one that works least well for Brits.

Death penalty: not listed in the Pew typology data set but the link takes you to other Pew data which shows a split of 37% against to 55% in favor. Democrats are more equivocal on the matter than Republicans.

Phew! A lot of data and to add more grist to the mill there is demographic data on the types that show the Solid Liberal group as having a higher proportion of college grad+ people. I’ll come back to that when I return to the issue of external sources of bias.

A thousand words+ time to pause before Part 4.