On petunias and whales: part 7

In part 6 I wandered off topic to nit-pick on issues that do not add much to the overall argument.

So far I think I have shown that we can’t, based on Dave Freer’s red/white/black classification of Hugo nominees conclude political bias towards the left in the Hugos. the central feature of that argument has been simply that he the author’s aren’t as left as he might think they are – but the case isn’t closed yet and I’ve made challengable assumptions and broad estimates.

In the next two posts I’m going to do a couple of things. Firstly the checks for bias aren’t quite finished and secondly I need to return to an earlier point – the potential sources and characteristics of bias in the Hugos.

Note that all I’ve shown so far is that we can’t really reject the “unbiased” hypothesis. That is not same as actually showing there isn’t bias – it just shows that using the methods we employed (Dave Freer’s methodology) I couldn’t detect it.

What about the steadfast conservatives?

Dave’s account of past Hugo results was intended to show two things that pertain to bias and I’ve only looked at one of them “too many reds”. The other thing we have not considered is the flip-side “not enough blacks” i.e. not enough outspoken conservatives.

For the left we looked at a range of issues in the Pew typology data. The group that seems to best match Dave Freer’s description in that data is the Steadfast Conservative group. They account for 12% of the US population based on the Pew data.

I’ll assume Dave’s classification of “black” (i.e. conservative) winners is right and that he has a good grasp of that side of the spectrum. So we would expect a chance of any given nominee (ignoring all caveats I’ve touched on so far) to be in this group to be 12% if the process is unbiased i.e. reflect the US population.

In the years we looked at (06, 08, 11, 12, 13) there no “black” nominations (see Part 5). How likely is that? Using the same approach I used in Part 5, the probability of zero nominations out of 25 is 4.1%. that is better than the 1% but less than a 5%. To clear a 20% hurdle we would need at least 2 winners.

One problem with that result is that Dave himself may have added some bias with the years he picked. If 2004 is included than arguably Dan Simmons counts as conservative writer (opinions may vary and to some extent that classification is based on his novel ‘Flashback’ which he says is not a good guide to his views). The chance of 1 out of 30 nominees is 8.8% – better but not 10%.

The issue here is that we are looking at small numbers regardless for potential Hugo nominees in the “steadfast conservative” category. A single nominee makes a big difference to the results. In any one year the probability of 0 nominees from that group by chance is 52% (i.e. an even bet that there will be none). Only by aggregating years does it begin to look like a particular bias – a bias AGAINST outspoken conservatives rather than a bias in favor of those on the left.

Is this plausible? That is a question that is worth asking of any mathematical result. being plausible is proof of nothing but it is a good sanity check when crunching numbers.

I believe it is plausible that in Hugo voters voting that there could be a bias against at least some kind of conservatives. Consider one issue: same-sex marriage. This issue has been a contentious issue in US politics for many years. It has been used as ‘wedge’ issue by conservatives initially and more recently (as tides have shifted) by the left. It is also an issue in which opinions may seem to have shifted rapidly over a few decades.

Within the community of fans and authors the issue has played out in specific controversies around the author Orson Scott-Card who has taken controversial positions on same-sex marriage and homosexuality (see this article for a discussion). As a result he has been targeted for boycotts and even without that many people who support same-sex marriage may feel uneasy about effectively giving him money by buying his works.

The contentiousness of the same-sex marriage debate (particularly as it moves towards full recognition and majority support) may well contribute to an active dislike of authors who have expressed anti-same-ex marriage or anti-gay positions. This may lead to a political bias in people’s voting. I think it certainly would affect mine – so I think at least some bias against writers in the “steadfast conservative” type would be present in the Hugo voting.

There may be another factor in play that is not a political bias on the part of the voters but which contributes to a statistical bias in the figures. If voters increasingly look for characters who are women, gay, of diverse ethnicity etc. authors in the steadfast conservative group may find their works at a disadvantage. Again this is not to say that no conservative writer ever writes effective women characters and it certainly isn’t to say that every writer in this group only produces work that is bigoted – nor is it that the converse is true left or center leaning authors may still be churning out books with white, male, straight heroes. The point is not a deterministic one but one simply were a political position for one group is at odds with an AESTHETIC position for the other.

Wait! Is that light at the end of the tunnel? Yes – two more parts to go.

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2 thoughts on “On petunias and whales: part 7

  1. Pingback: On petunias and whales: part 8 | Camestros Felapton

  2. Pingback: On petunias and whales: part 9 | Camestros Felapton

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