On petunias and whales: part 8

In part 7 I found some evidence of bias – specifically a plausible bias against Hugo eligible authors who might fit into the Pew typology (covered in previous posts) of “steadfast conservatives“. Dave Freer’s argument had looked at this from the other direction – considering whether there was a bias in favor of “red” authors.

Overall I don’t think the numbers do suggest an active political bias in the Hugo voting for people who are particularly left wing. However, there may be a bias against people on the right of the spectrum. [NOTE: I shan’t say ‘far right” because that is a whole other argument. The Pew typology I’ve used is looking at mainstream beliefs on mainstream issues. There are fringe views beyond these that will behave quite differently]

This takes me back to Part 1 and Part 2 of this discussion. If you recall I’d discussed the fact that discovering a statistical bias is not the same as discovering some active discrimination, prejudice, vote rigging or nefarious acts against a given group. The bias can come from many directions. Here are a few:

  1. the bias can be due to external social factors
  2. the bias can be due to a structural aspect (e.g. a voting system or selection process) that in combination with 1 results in further bias. This aspect could be intentional or unintentional.
  3. the bias could be due to unconscious prejudices in people making decisions
  4. the bias could be due to conscious prejudices in people making decisions

For example a workplace that was examining the numbers of employees from a given ethnic minority that had historically faced prejudice may find that the numbers are disproportionately low (or perhaps high in some positions or low in others or average pay etc.) A study might find that:

  • few people from that ethnic group have the relevant qualifications
  • job positions are advertised in places that have low readership among that ethnic group
  • of two equal candidates one of that group and the other not, decision makers tend to pick the other more often
  • at least one key decision maker has expressed negative views about that ethnic group

Racial and sexual discrimination often operate on all those levels and hence can be deeply entrenched.

In terms of the Hugos, the puppy complaint has focused on the second and fourth. That somehow the system is rigged (by informal slates) and by prejudice against them by elites in the community. However it is more than possible that multiple factors are in play that would contribute to a statistical bias against steadfast conservatives.

The Hugo voting community

This is a difficult one to analyses as there isn’t any obvious set of demographic data to draw from. The Puppies have expressed a desire to extend this community to include a more diverse group. Additionally in pro-puppy comments there is a notion that there is a self-reinforcing aspect – people vote for certain kinds of Hugos, this alienates people who don’t like that style of work and so tend to take less interest in the Hugos, the Hugo voting community therefore loses those people and retains the people who like particular styles, which means that style of fiction is more likely to get nominated etc. In this scenario he Hugos face a death spiral of irrelevance.

The argument has some coherence but it isn’t very testable. The rise of voters seeming to be more concerned with issues such as gender or sexuality matches changes in social attitudes and hence does not suggest a narrowing of a field. The numbers of people voting or attending WorldCon is another matter and there is a better discussion of the figures than I can give here.

In the previous post I discussed some conflict that may occur between the aesthetic choice of people in general and the political positions of steadfast conservatives on the other. Factors such as those may well lead to an effective bias against conservative writers.

Additionally in earlier posts I discussed how people (and specifically Dave Freer in his argument) will use outspokeness as proxy for how far left or right they are on the spectrum (i.e. more outspoken = further from the center) and how that may be very misleading when applied to authors (as they are subsection of the population more inclined to publishing their ideas). The same applies to conservative writers. People unfamiliar with Orson Scott-Card’s politics will have found his views quite shocking.

Hugo eligible writers

Could it be that in the wider community of writers that there are demographic biases? In other words is there reason to assume that SF/F authors in general tend have more lefties and fewer righties than the general population?

The Pew demographic data provides a breakdown of each type by education. Matching this data to an occupation/hobby like SF/F writing is not clear. While it maybe less likely that somebody with only high school education will become a writer it certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule. The economic risks involved in being a full time author is a barrier for many and would lead to authors being more likely to be middle class and college educated.

The left on the whole is not better educated than the right both sides of the spectrum have sub-groups with more or less education than the general population. A key difference though is that the ends of the spectrum in Pew’s typology have quite different profiles. The solid liberal group is only 18% high-school-or-less compared with 46% of the steadfast conservatives. The solid liberals resemble the business conservative group in terms of educational profile and these conservatives also tend to be less socially conservative than the steadfasts.

Puppy slate adds data

The 2015 Puppy slates did not claim to be only nominating conservatives but it is reasonable to assume that if either of the puppy slates was intended to cover works that would otherwise not get nominated, then the proportion of conservative writers should be higher. Notably the final nominations had a much smaller set of authors than might be expected. John C Wright was nominated fives times (it would have been 6 but one work was disqualified on a technicality). Given circumstances highly favorable to conservative writers, it is notable that the nominations had to include the same writer multiple times (including 3 spots in best Novella).

The process

The Hugo nominations are a vote and not a survey. The distinction is important. The best way to find the most liked novel of SF/F fans in general and without political bias would be to conduct a rigorous statistically sound random sample survey of SF/F readers. I don’t know why somebody would want to do that but if that was the goal that is the way to do it.

Votes are different. Votes do not necessarily result in proportionality, which is why democratic nations discuss voting systems, constituency boundaries, sizes of legislatures, gerrymandering etc. Without more data it is hard to tell how proportional the Hugo nomination process should be if voters were unbiased politically. So I’ll have to leave that hanging. Suggested reforms are equally hard to analyses without knowing individual voting patterns. However any kind of commonality between a group (i.e. people in a group tending to vote the same way without prior coordination) will lead to disproportionate result. This effect can be achieved also by a coordinated slate – as occurred in 2015 – but some sub-group (e.g. Doctor Who fans) might vote in a similar way together without any central organizing.

Conspiracy, log-rolling, cliques, campaigning

Nothing in the data points particularly in this direction. Specific accusations have been discussed ad-nauseum elsewhere and File 770 has regular reports on the day’s play.

Last part next!


2 thoughts on “On petunias and whales: part 8

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