statistics and constitutional amendments, with a side of pastafarians

Republican elephant and Democrat donkey boxing

A friend of mine posted recently on her blog about a Pew poll that showed 42% of Republicans polled claiming to be “very happy” with their lives while only 30% of Democrats claim the same.

Another blog picked it up and we’ve all taken to speculating as to why the results came out as they did, because man is the speculating animal.

My friend wrote responding to comments she saw as saying “republicans are ignorant people, so they’re happier because they don’t know any better,” and made some comments that seemed to me to say “liberals don’t know what they stand for, so of course they’re unhappy.”

Naturally, I had to respond in a long, logic heavy “hope this doesn’t just piss everyone off, it probably will, but I need to stand up for liberals for a minute and say something about how we’re interpreting these numbers” sort of comment. So I had fun, tried to keep things fair but clear, and we’ll see if I’ve just chased away some friends.

And of course, I’m reprinting it here, with extra subheading goodness…
Enjoy the ride! :^)

Straw men like 24
I’ll have to stand for something here and disagree with the generalization that liberals don’t stand for anything. It’s a straw man argument. We’re creating a fictitious group of people, giving them a label like, say… “24 fans,” saying “24 fans are like such and such,” and talking about how they’re wrong about this and that without checking to see if 24 fans are really like what we’re saying they’re like.

Liberals are vertebrates too
I’m not saying that we can’t find liberals that don’t stand for anything and are unhappy as a result, but having many liberal friends and finding myself on the liberal side of some issues myself, I have to point out, many of us stand for things. Probably more of us than you think. We often don’t stand for the same things as conservatives, but we stand, work, and fight for them just as much as conservatives.

One thing I run into with some of my conservative friends is a difficulty distinguishing between not standing for something and standing for a different view of something than they have.

So is this a stand?
For example, let’s say I don’t support teaching intelligent design in school or requiring schools to teach children that evolution is probably untrue despite the observable evidence. In the case of teaching creationism or intelligent design in public schools, I stand for a very specific interpretation of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (The Bill of Rights, Amendment I).

Even though I believe that God created everything around us, I don’t believe that Congress is allowed to pass any law that requires students to learn that God created the earth. That’s my job as a parent, and I don’t want Congress interfering with it. The Bill of Rights says that I can teach my children how the universe was created without the state getting in the way. I shouldn’t have to un-teach whatever religious beliefs the public schools teach my children before teaching them what our religion teaches. (And evolution isn’t a religious belief, it’s a scientific theory based on conventionally observable evidence. Religion is based on faith and spiritually observable evidence.)

Unfortunately, people sometimes interpret this stance as standing for nothing because I’m letting science that they see as incompatible with religion get taught in school. Instead, I’m standing for the government sticking to the protections that the Bill of Rights promises: you can’t teach my kids your religion in public school. (And it doesn’t make a special allowance to change the science curriculum because I don’t want to have to explain to my kids that sometimes what scientists find out about the world doesn’t match with what we read in the bible every day. I’ll have to suck it up and talk with my kids about how science and religion work.)

So how do I stand for that position? I tell people why I think it’s a bad idea to teach the majority’s religious beliefs in public school even though they’re mostly the same as mine. I try to get informed about who’s running in school board elections, whether they stand for imposing the majority religious view on everybody in public school, and I vote against them. (Unfortunately, I’m not doing an especially good job, because we just had school board elections in Cobb county and we’re still requiring disclaimer stickers on science books that mention evolution. Course… it’s easier to vote against an incumbent when there’s a challenger.)

Globe… warming… need… pirates!
Numbers don’t always say what people say they do. As a fun example, the pastafarians point out that global warming is caused by the decline in the number of pirates since the early 1800s. They point out that there is a statistically significant inverse relationship between these two things.

Graph of the correlation between Global Average Temperature and Number of Pirates
If we look at the numbers we find… there is an inverse relationship! But using that relationship to claim that global warming is a result of “not enough pirates” is ridiculous because we can’t prove that pirates did anything to prevent global warming and we’re totally ignoring everything else that’s happened in the world since 1820 that might have had a more direct effect. (Like the industrial revolution, emission of greenhouse gases, women’s suffrage, and the increase in worldwide readership of Charles Dickens.)

So just because 45% of republicans say they’re very happy and only 29% of democrats say the same doesn’t mean we can necessarily conclude that being republican (conservative) will make you happier than being democrat (liberal) will.

So how would you say you feel about life?
To finish up, there’s one key problem I see with interpreting this poll too broadly.
We know that the poll measures what people say about how happy feel, it asks how much money they make, how much they think money buys happiness, and it asks them what political party they consider themselves part of.

But because we’re asking people how happy they think they are, we’re going to get fuzzy numbers for happiness because different people have a different take on what “very happy,” “pretty happy,” and “not too happy” mean. What I consider a very happy life for me might feel like a not too happy life for you. (Maybe I just like being happy more than you do, or maybe I just like saying I’m happy more. Hard to say.)

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3 Comments

Filed under politics, religion

3 responses to “statistics and constitutional amendments, with a side of pastafarians

  1. You totally pissed me off, Brian!

    HA. Yeah, right. You think an intelligent (Well, maybe you don’t think my side was that intelligent.) argument is going to piss me off? I live for that stuff. Live for it.

    For the record, I’ll say this. I knew what I was trying to say, and I didn’t like how I said it. It bothered me even when I posted it. But I felt like posting it anyway. Should I take it off? No. So I have responded to your response — probably still not in a satisfactory way. But I’ll keep thinking about it. Plus, I was just throwing a thought out there. I’m still going with it, but like I said, I can change my mind if I decide it’s wrong. And I’ll even post about it! 🙂

  2. All as it should be. (“For the record…” and all that.)

    As for pissing people off… it’s something I tend to worry about with church folks. I’ve known too many people who just shut down once political conversations start having both sides (three guesses who instinctively picks up the previously unrepresented one), and the way people tend to throw 2 Nephi 9:28 around while leaving off verse 29, I tend to assume at this point that controversial statements are better left unsaid until I can get a feel for people, especially if those statements rely on logical reasoning.

    There’s a big problem with this of course. In doing that I’m prejudging. I’m unfairly assuming that people don’t want to hear anything but what they already believe about the world. As far as getting over that, I’ve been hoping more lately though and letting things fly more often. Putting that pride aside seems to be getting more important too. I feel like at a societal level, left and right (blue and red, whatever) aren’t talking to each other as much as they used to. I keep hearing conversations about how “they” are like this, believe this, or “are trying to do this to us” with very little reference to what people in that given group are really saying or doing.

    Hoping for something better was one of the things that made The West Wing so great back in its heyday. But that’s another conversation.

  3. Anonymous

    Subheadings are nice, aren’t they?

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