A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Pinker should worry about things that exist! (Election Day Special)

In anticipation of today's election (with polls to open in 6 hours or so), I thought I would use this opportunity to complain about Stephen Pinker. Pinker wrote a recent editorial in the New York times that has been making the rounds. In it, he speculates about the causes for the "red state" vs. "blue state" segregation in our country - a familiar "T" shaped pattern in which the central and northern parts of the country vote solid conservative and the coasts vote liberal. The article is actually interesting... but it has one big problem.

Like many other things written by Pinker, the article seems to be trying to explain a phenomenon that does not exist. I'm not saying that the United States does not contain the cultural differences of the type Pinker describes. I am saying that they do not segregate geographically in anything like the way Pinker asserts they do. Given a forum in which Pinker could educate others about the diverse American political landscape, Pinker buys into folk wisdom and promotes a continuation of stereotypes.

Now, the folk-wisdom is correct about how states have gone in recent elections, but A) that is only recent, and Pinker suggests trends that should go far back in history, and B) they are only true if you stick to state-level data. I was deep intrigued by the more detailed maps that were produced to go along with the 2008 elections. This data often went down to counties, and could include weighted representations of those counties. One of my favorites was the "purple" graph at the bottom of this article: http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/2008_election_county-by-county/ I expect that the 2012 elections will produce similarly diverse and muddled maps.

Our country is not as geographically fractured as the talking heads on TV want us to think. There is, perhaps, a city vs. rural divide, but even that is not as reliable as people want it to seem. The reality is that very small differences in mean percentages appear to be very large differences when you average across an entire state, and then color the map using only two colors.

One would have hoped that a world famous scientist would not risk talking about the distribution of votes in the country before he tried to examined the data carefully. But then again, it is much easier to just take the folk-wisdom, spruce it up a touch, and provide a plausible narrative.

Sigh. Maybe next time.

In the meantime, however the election turns out, we are not as divided as it seems. Sure, there are crazy people at all available political extremes, but most Americans are moderate. Even in the most reliably "conservative" parts of the country, most people just want to be allowed to live their lives. At any rate, it is finally time to see whose polls predicted things the best. After all, that's what matters!


  1. "Like many other things written by Pinker, the article seems to be trying to explain a phenomenon that does not exist."

    Love it. This is probably the most accurate one sentence summary of Pinker's work that I've ever seen.

  2. Thanks for this interesting post. I'd like to just point out an erroneous link: the text "http://www.outsidethebeltway.com/2008_election_county-by-county/" is linked to Pinker's editorial.

    Regards, Simon