The other day, a conservative friend of mine sent me a link. It was to a paper purportedly demonstrating that conservatives were more ideologically diverse than their liberal counterparts.
I found this result surprising, rather striking to be honest, and contrary to my own experience.
The study, as it appears, has not been published yet but it is available in an online manuscript archive. It certainly appears thorough. So how could it come to its striking conclusions?
I think I figured out the answer when I looked at the appendices, which provide details on how the research was conducted. Here is a set of questions that were used in two of the four studies discussed in the paper:
- It is the responsibility of political leaders to promote programs that will help close the income gap between the rich and the poor.
- There is no “right way” to live life; instead, everyone must create a way to live which works best for them.
- Spending tax dollars on “abstinence education” rather than “sex education” is more effective in curbing teen pregnancy.
- The more money a person makes in America, the more taxes he/she should pay.
- The use of our military strength makes the United States a safer place to live.
- America would be a better place if people had stronger religious beliefs.
- The traditional (male/female) two-parent family provides the best environment of stability, discipline, responsibility and character.
- America’s domestic policy should do more to ensure that living and working conditions are equal for all groups of people.
- Flag burning should be illegal.
- Our society is set up so that people usually get what they deserve.
- Taxation should be used to fund social programs.
- Gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage.
When I look at this list, it is clear to me that questions 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are standard “liberal” pushbutton items, whereas the rest are “conservative” in nature.
But look more closely. Items 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are, insofar as liberal views are concerned, very mild and mainstream. Closing the income gap? Taxing income? (Not even a mention of progressive taxation.) Social programs? I know of no liberal who would disagree with these broad concepts. In fact, I can think of many conservatives who would readily subscribe at least to some of these ideas.
Now look at the conservative questionnaire items. Flag burning? A great many conservatives in the US believe firmly that this right is strongly protected by the First Amendment. Gay marriage? Sure, it’s an issue for some, but for many conservatives, it’s either something that they are neutral about (or may even support it) or often, it’s an issue that comes up more as a matter of states’ rights vs. the federal government, without a priori opposing the idea.
In short, when I looked closely I realized that whereas the “liberal” questions accurately reflect the liberal mainstream, the “conservative” questions are more representative of a liberal caricature of what conservatives are thought to be. By way of example, the “liberal” analog of some of these “conservative” questions would be something like, “Research that demonstrates differences on the basis of gender or race should be banned”, or some similar conservative caricature of liberal “identity politics” or “social justice warriors”.
The results, therefore, are not surprising after all. Since most liberals agree on mainstream liberal ideas, the liberal side comes across as ideologically monolithic; and since many conservatives take issue with narrowly defined, often religiously motivated line items, they come across as more diverse, more heterogeneous.
Ironically, then, the liberal bias of the researchers resulted in a paper that, contrary to their expectations, appeared to show that the conservative side is more ideologically tolerant than their liberal counterparts. In reality, though, I think the paper merely demonstrates the garbage-in-garbage-out principle that is so well known in computer science: when your research is flawed, your results will be just as flawed.