Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Flawed Mathematical Model That Makes Sense

I think a lot of people believe they have a balanced view of the world. Our perceptions, however, are always based on our surroundings, not some immeasurable objective truth.

If all your friends read Breitbart, you really do think everyone thinks Obama was a racist and Maxine Waters is insane. You reference it the way we reference a Simpsons episode, without context, as though everyone is in on the joke. In the same way, if all your friends supported Bernie, you think Hillary was the wrong candidate, and she tanked the election, and you think her supporters need to "wake up." It's the same way, if all your friends are Hillary supporters, you think Bernie cut her legs out from under her in the primary, and weakened her going into the general, and his supporters need to shut the fuck up because their lack of support is why she lost. You think these things because you believe, based on your friends, that you are in the majority.

Recently, in the throws of a really (I mean really) petty pissing match with a total stranger on Facebook, I stumbled into a thought experiment I can't let go. It starts with this premise:

Sixty-four million people voted for our current president. Are they all stupid? Yes, dear reader (assuming you exist), this is going to be a fair and balanced approach to politics.

The population of the US is about 319 million people. If you were to measure the intelligence of every one of them, apply a number to that result, add them all up, and divide by 319 million, you would get a measure of average intelligence. Even if all 319 million measured genius level IQ's, there would be a spot in the middle that is average, with 50% above and 50% below. That means 159 million Americans are, in any model, below average intelligence. Even if we're plotting everything on a bell curve, with most people in the middle, 159 million Americans are below average intelligence.

Twenty percent of 319 million is 64 million, meaning 64 million Americans are in the bottom fifth of intelligence. It would be ridiculous to say the 64 million that voted for the president and 64 million that are in the bottom fifth are the same 64 million. Some of these idiots are children or are so dumb they actually didn't vote. But now I've armed you with a rhetorical trick you can use on anyone who tries to pull the "64 million people can't be wrong" argument. Just to be clear, my argument is equally stupid.

But the base-level math holds up. In a sample size as large as 319 million, given any measurement, 159 million people will be above average, 159 million will be below average. On a scale of 1 to 100, how much do you love candy? I'm sure the average answer will be something like 85. But 159 million Americans like candy MORE than the average. That's how averages work. They create a middle marker for all data points. With a sample size this large, it works.

In terms of politics, that means we can define an average political view and place 159 million Americans on either side of it. This includes a 3-year-old who, when asked, would say giving money to poor people sounds nice, putting them ever so slightly on the liberal side of the average.

I hope by now you're reading my friend Graham's blog Not So Simple. Graham has a PhD in Social Policy, and I do not. So I want to be clear, he has not read this before I post it. I'm sure after it posts, he's going to tear my model apart, but this is more thought experiment than math. In one of his posts, he points to a 2016 survey that, for all intents and purposes, breaks the country down the middle politically. In a wholly unscientific way, I'm going to say this means we can place the "average political view" somewhere close to the exact center of the political spectrum (hard left, left, moderate, right, hard right).

Let's say you live in Hulett, Wyoming, population 383. Crook County went 88.7% for the president, so let's say for argument's sake, that means 88.7% of Hulett is a conservative. That means even if most of them are just sort of right-leaning moderates, their average political view falls well into the red zone.

This means that their conversations about politics use this as a measuring stick. Even that moderate purple area leans pretty far to the left. Most of them probably went for the president. I mean, someone who voted for him, but wasn't enthusiastic about it probably gets treated like a liberal. And those 7% who voted for Hillary are communist anarchists. Think about that next time you say Hillary might as well be a Republican. To these people, she doesn't even register as a viable option. She is so far left of their average. The 3% that voted for Gary Johnson probably get called pot smoking libtards. The people of Hulett, WY might be surprised to learn they actually sit right about on that big dot below, on the political spectrum. They probably don't think they're that extreme.

I think we all need to re-evaluate our own bubbles. I have more Facebook friends than the population of Hulett. Some of them are openly conservative, but most are somewhat split between Hillary and Bernie voters, and to be fair, a lot of people who are probably really mad at the volume I post about politics. This means my average (below, estimated) is well into the blue. Compare that to Hulett, where my dark blue section is almost as big as their dark blue, blue, and purple sections combined.

The model still holds up for me. I think anyone, even my conservative leaning friends, are insane for voting for the president. I look at them and think, "Don't they know he's terrible? Was voting for him really worth whatever political belief they hold?" That's easy for me because I'm over here in blue town. I can't fathom how insane a choice Hillary would be to them. To me, she's the moderate left option, but to them, she's going to tax them out of existence and take their jobs.

This model is helping me to better understand my friends who still support Bernie. To me, they're just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky idealists with no concept of how the system really works. Looking at the world this way, I can better see how they see themselves. They have a different average political view point. To me, they're extreme left, but to them, they're probably in the middle. They have friends who believe a lot more progressively than they do, so they don't think what they believe is THAT extreme. In the same way, my conservative friends could be tearing their hair out wondering how I could be fooled by the Clinton machine.

I really, really don't like Bernie Sanders. Even now, I see him as a figure tearing the left apart, so he can get himself some headlines. He's an egomaniac, like any politician. I just don't get his appeal, and I don't get the vitriol from his supporters toward people who won't just drink his Kool-Aid. I do see now, though, how people can view him through their own average political view and think he's not as extreme as I think he is.

And I can understand that to people far left of me, who don't think they're that far left, can see Hillary as a Republican in sheep's clothing. These are the same people who challenged me when I called President Wilson a liberal, saying he's not a "true" liberal. They don't see the national political average being far right of where they are. Instead of seeing their vastly blue spectrum, they think left of their average is red. If you're a Bernie supporter, is it because your spectrum looks like this:

Like Hulett, WY in reverse. But maybe your perceived average is actually more like this:

To be clear, I'm not calling anyone weak willed or influenced by the crowd. We all base our political beliefs on our own values. In relation to the outside world, though, I think it's important to accurately evaluate your place in it. Maybe in your group of friends, you consider yourself proudly more left than everyone, but I'd argue you still don't understand just how far to the left you are. Or me, the proud centrist. I'm sure many would consider my left as hell.

I think we all need to consider where the national political average is and measure ourselves against that, not just our surroundings. Maybe it's not that Hillary voters need to wake up or Bernie voters need to get real. Maybe, we don't actually believe the same things. Maybe we don't share the same political values. But as long as we keep fighting over which one of us has the better vision for the country, we're missing the point. We're still way over here sharing one half of this pie. We are only 51% of the electorate together.

I mean, we can all agree anyone who voted for this president is a moron, right?

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