Sunday, March 1, 2009

On the Liberal Narrative

The title sounds pretentious, but the topic is relatively mundane: why are some so quick to believe the worst about their ideological opponents?

Here's an example of what I mean. Benjamin Edelman of Harvard Business School publishes a study tracking pornography consumption in the United States. According to the study, people living in "red states" buy about the same amount of porn as people living in "blue states." Sometimes more. The state with the most porn subscriptions is Utah, probably one of the reddest of the red states.

New Scientist published an article discussing Edelman's study. The headline?

Porn in the USA: Conservatives are biggest consumers

I don't have the evidence to blame Edelman for that headline, although his remarks as quoted in the article suggest he endorses it. But it's a stupid headline, which the study itself does not support.

The study does not show that conservatives purchase more porn than liberals. What it does show is that people who live in "red states" purchase at least as much porn as those who live in "blue states." But we don't know anything about the people who are actually purchasing the porn. Nothing at all. Read it again: not. a. thing.

It could be that liberals who live in "red states" are buying all the porn, because living in red states leaves them feeling sexually frustrated. It could be that conservatives in blue states are buying porn because living around liberals has a corrupting influence on their sexual mores. The data supports either hypothesis as well as it supports the hypothesis that conservatives consume porn at higher rates than liberals do.

My wonderful stats prof from the last year of my undergraduate career should use this article, if not the study itself, as an example of blatant misuse of statistics.

This blog post knocks down the New Scientist article better than I ever could. Here's another idiotic article that could use the same treatment.

So our example thus far is a terrible article that draws unsupported conclusions from a Edelman's study.

Here's example 2...

Actually, where do I start? See here, here, here, and especially here, here and here. I found those links by doing a Google search of blogs, using the keywords "conservative" and "porn", limiting results to the last month or so. There are plenty more to choose from. Almost everyone uses the study as evidence of conservative "hypocrisy." Jezebel, for example:
Conservative hypocrisy is no surprise: anyone who has watched the Republican party fight off allegations of bathroom sexual encounters, child molestation, and prostitutes has witnessed the "Do As I Say, Not As I Do" philosophy that seems to sweep through the right-wing on a regular basis.
At Huffington Post, people opine in the comments about conservative hypocrisy, and is further evidence of the repressive attitudes of conservatives. "Phoenix Woman" at the well-known liberal blog Firedoglake headlines her post: "Word from the Porn Belt: Do as I Say, Not as I Do"

I could go on, but I won't. There are two things to observe in these examples:
  1. The New Scientist headline is accepted completely uncritically. This is pretty strange since liberals often claim to be great at the whole "critical thinking thing", and only a little bit of that is needed to blow holes in the article.
  2. Once accepted, it is taken as evidence of conservative hypocrisy.
Both these observations deserve further examination.

Why did liberals accept the headline so completely? The answer seems simple: they accepted it because it provided further evidence for what they already believe about conservatives, e.g. that they're all sexually repressed hypocrites.

When a study claimed to show that conservatives were more generous than liberals with their money, liberals were very quick to contest both the findings and the methods of that study. Why? Because it went against the narrative. According to the narrative, conservatives are: (a) evil, (b) stupid, (c) sexually repressed, and, above all, (d) hypocritical. The New Scientist piece provided confirmation of all of these traits.

In other words, when something confirms a person's narrative, he's more likely to accept it uncritically than if it sharply diverges from the narrative.

I've argued elsewhere that, insofar as liberals tend to espouse moral relativism, the hypocrisy charge is really the only one they can make against conservatives. After all, you can't claim conservatives have false moral beliefs unless you're prepared to admit that there is such a thing as true moral beliefs.

This makes finding evidence for the hypocrisy charge vital: it's the only item in the moral toolkit of the typical liberal.

At the same time, the hypocrisy charge doesn't stick unless you believe that conservatives don't really hold the moral beliefs they claim to hold. Otherwise, one could explain inconsistency between belief and action through weakness of will (something liberals tend not to believe in, anyway, but conservatives certainly do.)

Thus, to prove the conservative is a hypocrite, you have to believe more than this:
1. Conservative says he believes believes pornography is wrong.
2. Conservative still consumes pornography.

You also have to believe:
3. Conservative doesn't really believe what he says he believes.

As a matter of fact, liberals typically do not stop there. They will attribute all sorts of motives and mental states to their ideological opponents. Here are some common examples:

"What anti-abortion conservatives really want is to make women their property. That's why they oppose abortion."

Or: "What free market conservatives really want is for the poor to suffer and starve."

The problem is that (3) (or any of the other attributed beliefs) is very hard to prove. How do you show that a person is lying about her moral beliefs, and not just suffering from weakness of will when she doesn't act on them? The very fact that this is vital part of the liberal narrative virtually requires the manufacture of evidence, or the uncritical acceptance of inconclusive statistics. It requires the use of deceptive non sequiturs, moving from (1) and (2) to the desired conclusion without noting the gap in the argument.

I will say: conservatives have their own narrative, and hence exhibit similar traits. More on that later...


Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog--very well thought-out! Could you suggest few easy-to-digest books on libertarian thought? Basically, I would like to start with some building blocks, etc. Thanks.

Terrence C. Watson said...

Hey anonymous,

I'm flattered you like reading my blog. There are a few books I could suggest: my old prof, Jan Narveson, has a book called The Libertarian Idea.

It's pretty good, although dense in places. The best part is, Jan is very, very good at getting back to people who contact him by email. That's a huge plus: any questions, comments, or criticisms you have can be directed to him, and he'll get back to you very quickly.

There's another book called The Libertarian Reader that is full of historical and contemporary pieces on libertarianism. It's a good way to get a sense of both the arguments for libertarianism and the controversies within the philosophy itself.

Finally, Randy Barnett's book Restoring the Lost Constitution is really interesting if you like some of the legal issues I've tried (albeit, inexpertly) to raise on my blog. He makes a plausible case that the American Constitution is quite a libertarian document.

Thanks for writing!