Tag: Opinion Polls

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.)