Pew and the Two Bucket Problem

A few days ago, Scott Adams posted this. He was discussing the current debate over whether torture resulted in the killing of OBL (current answer: reply hazy, try again). Alan Dershowitz was offering an intermediate view: torture may work; but it’s still unnecessary and wrong and we shouldn’t do it.

But the interesting part of the post was not the torture issue. It was that Dershowitz’s answer seemed to puzzle the interviewer — was he for torture or against it? Adams had this to say:

My hypothesis is that we humans automatically sort topics into two opposing viewpoints, or buckets. In the rare cases when we encounter a third opinion, we can’t easily process it because our brains don’t have a third bucket.

I came up with the two-bucket hypothesis by observing how some people react to this blog. When I float an idea that doesn’t fit into one of the two standard buckets for a given topic, people assume I am an enemy from the other bucket and post comments to that effect. Notice how often the commenters here argue against what I write as if my posts must be supporting one of the two existing buckets. That’s the two-bucket phenomenon in action.

I would say that Adams’ point is more accurate if it is narrowed to our political and media class. Most ordinary people know that opinions can fall in the middle of a variety of issues. But our media thrives on false dichotomies. They much prefer commentators shouting “you hate America!” than “well, you have a point, but…”

A perfect example of this is the recent political typology quiz from the Pew Research Center. Good quizzes on politics will have options like “mostly agree” “strongly agree” “somewhat agree” “don’t give a shit” or “who are you and get the fuck out of my house”. Pew, however divided issues into two and only two opinions and you have to choose one or the other to find out which political tribe you belong to.

As many have observed, however, most opinion will fall somewhere in the middle. Question 7, for example, asks you to choose either “Most people who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard” or “hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most people”. I picked option 1. But option 2, if you changed it to “many” or “some” would be viable as well. As Alex posted below, our public schools are in such terrible shape that millions of kids are denied any real opportunity at success. And the government has a crushing influence on the free market — whether favoring unions or doing favors for powerful businesses or handing out subsidies or passing regulations that crush small businesses like the CPSIA. And to the extent that I think option 2 is right, it strengthens my support for conservative positions like re-regulation, school choice and free markets.

Question 8 says either “religion is very important to me” or “religion is not that important to me”. I guarantee you that tens of millions, like me, would fall into the “religion is somewhat important to me”. We’re not all either atheists or fundamentalists.

Question 9 asks you to either say blacks can’t get ahead because they don’t try or that the country is racist. Question 10 posts that you can only choose diplomacy or military strength to ensure peace, as if you can’t use both. On question 13 — I believe that government regulation usually does more harm than good; but I also believe it’s sometimes a necessary evil. On question 15 — I think relying on military force to deal with terrorism is sometimes wise, sometimes dumb. Depends on the situation.

Question 18 asks about corporate profits, as if it’s any of government’s business how much profit businesses make. Question 19 — whether homosexuality should be accepted or discouraged by society — is very poorly phrased. I don’t think society’s attitude toward gays is important politically, even if government were capable of changing it. I simply think our government should treat them equally. Live and let live. And let society come to tolerance on its own.

To be honest — and maybe I’m reaching here — there seems to be a bit of a bias against conservative positions. That is, conservative positions on issues are phrased the way liberals think conservatives think rather than the way conservatives actually think. They’re almost caricatures of conservative opinion. Take question 9:

Blacks who can’t get ahead in this country are mostly responsible for their own condition.

Very few conservatives believe this. If you were to ask a conservative (note to Pew: you may have to go outside to find some), most would say it’s a combination of failing government programs, the collapse of the family, the drug problem and yes, some personal responsibility.

Or this:

Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care

There are some conservatives who believe this. Others would qualify the above with “some” or “illegal”. Others would say the above is irrelevant — it’s the flouting of the law they dislike. And still others, like me, would say that’s mostly untrue but has little relevance for immigration policy.

Pew seems to be having a two-bucket problem. Actually, it’s more of a one-bucket problem of shoveling a broad array of conservative opinion into caricatures of talking points.

Once again, we find that polls are worthless.

(For what it’s worth, I took the quiz and ended up libertarian — no surprise to my regular readers.)

Comments are closed.

  1. JimK

    Saw the Adams post too. Sometimes he wins with those, and the two-bucket post was a winner.

    Shockingly, I also came out Libertarian on that poll thing. In talking with Donna the other day though, I came up with the best description of my political self that I could: I am a socially liberal, legally libertarian, fiscally conservative hawk who is agnostic.

    We don’t have a word for that. Conservaliberalatarianagnostahawk?

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  2. Anonymous

    >>I came up with the two-bucket hypothesis by observing how some people
    react to this blog. When I float an idea that doesn’t fit into one of
    the two standard buckets for a given topic, people assume I am an enemy
    from the other bucket and post comments to that effect.

    Scott, while the hypothesis is not completely off-target, people generally react poorly to your blog because you make asinine statements and think you’re the sole intelligent/sentient human being on the face of the planet. Your sexism post managed to offend EVERYBODY, so what bucket does that go into?

    >>I would say that Adams’ point is more accurate if it is narrowed to our political and media class.

    Religion could fall into that as well. Especially between theists and anti-theists. “What the fuck is an agnostic?! I’ll tell you what it is, it means you’re too much of a pussy to PICK A SIDE!”

    >> As Alex posted below, our public schools are in such terrible shape
    that millions of kids are denied any real opportunity at success.

    Hm. On the other hand, you could put this back into “willing to work hard”. After all, public schools are not the sole way our society offers you a chance to better yourself (for free). There are public libraries, after all. And even if your public library sucks, you could hike yourself over to the local big chain bookstore where they let people sit around and read and don’t care about it, and read books on any number of subjects. It does require you to self-teach to a certain extent, obviously, and it’s definitely no replacement for improving the public schools. On the other hand, saying “My public school sucked, oh well, I’ll just be a failure” means a willingness to give up. There are plenty of success stories of people that learned and thrived in SPITE of their school systems. So there is a certain amount of “If you really, really want that success, a shitty public school isn’t going to hold you back.”

    >>Very few conservatives believe this. If you were to ask a conservative
    (note to Pew: you may have to go outside to find some), most would say
    it’s a combination of failing government programs, the collapse of the
    family, the drug problem and yes, some personal responsibility.

    Hm. Where would the whole “black culture” thing fit into there? It incorporates aspects of a lot of those things, but in a way it’s not necessarily a personal or outside force but some strange mingling of the two. (There’s that third bucket again.)

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  3. Anonymous

    Hal, ever read a book called “Snow Crash”? If not, it’s a cyberpunk novel… some really good, really funny stuff squashed between pages and pages and pages of the author’s personal musings on the nature and emergence of sentience. (Which are only the very barest bit connected to the plot, they’re pretty skimmable/skippable). Overall I recommend it.

    But in one of these tl;dr passages it discusses the first sentient human, and how lonely he must have been moving about amidst what amounted to an entire race of game NPCs, who only responded to certain stimuli and went through the motions of doing what was necessary to maintain their way of life, and how this lone sentient attempted to uplift the rest with writing.

    That’s how I think Adams pictures himself and his blog. That he is the lone sentient, intellectual man, desperately flinging his all-important thoughts at the drooling automatons he’s surrounded by in the desperate hope that somehow, this spark of intelligence shall penetrate our pea-brains and we shall finally be enlightened, and of course make him our king as is proper.

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  4. Richtaylor365

    I am not a “two bucket” proponent. I guess it provides an easy solution, like a two answer multiple choice question-you just have to pick one, but most issues are not black/white. Much like that pew poll, after about the fourth question where I was limited only to two wrong answers, both equally invalid, I gave up, with the obvious conclusion that it would reveal nothing about where I stand on the issues.

    I would say that most people do not limit themselves to two buckets, those that do are those that found themselves paralyzed with BDS, or those that will criticize Obama not matter what he does.

    Dershowitz is right in that the Enhance Interrogation Techniques argument does not lend itself to the two bucket theory, but I would submit that even limiting it to 3 or 4 buckets in not adequate. Since Obama was elected there has been no captured terrorists submitted to anything beyond his Miranda Rights and ,”Do you want a soda and cigarette with that lawyer?”. There is a very bad dude sitting in a Pakistani holding cell right now,Umar Patek, that is tailored made for some of those EIT procedures that were used before, but we will never get the chance.

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  5. Hal 10000

    Rann, I have a small shrine in my library to Neal Stephenson on which I sacrifice Buck Rogers DVDs. Snow Crash is fantastic. I even loved his baroque trilogy.

    Good analogy though. There are lot of bloggers who feel tha way. Oh, shit…

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  6. JimK

    Stephenson fan here too.

    And yeah, Hal, that’s just exactly it: sometimes I want to just punch his smug face. Once in awhile he succinctly makes a good point. It’s that infrequent hit that keeps me going back there, that unpredictable reinforcement principle at work…

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  7. AlexInCT

    Meh, I really don’t have a problem with more than two options. The problem is that we seldom get that: more than two viable options. There are certain things that I simply do not like, and they practically always seem to be a must have to be on the left. I have voted mostly against certain people for example. Shit, maybe I am being driven by negativity. I would love more than 2 options, but with way too many things, there usually is only once choice that passes the muster for me.

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  8. hist_ed

    I loved Snow Crash but can’t get past the first couple of chapters in any of his other books. I always have the “Wow this is really well written but astoundingly boring” feeling.

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  9. hist_ed

    Is this the Dilbert guy’s blog? Didn’t know he had one.

    As far as the two buckets thing goes: I think he makes a really valid point. I think that abortion should be legal but that Roe should be overturned. I have met people that simply can’t wrap their heads around that. They either start sputtering in a “Does not compute” 1950s scifi robot sort of way or they just think I am lying.

    Try to find someone who thinks that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to own a weapon but who also thinks that is a bad idea. Or that socialized health care is a good idea but that it is unconstitutional.

    Every once in a while you find a judicial decision that shows this. Scalia, Thomas and Bork come to mind (saying essentially “This is a really stupid law but it is Constitutional”).

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  10. JimK

    I get that. But if you keep your head down and power through, his work tends to open up. Or you become inured to the boring tl;dr parts. One or the other. And his world-building is so, so good.

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