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Do mass political opinions cohere? And do psychologists "generalize without evidence" more often than political scientists?

Stats Legend Andrew Gelman (whose blog everyone who enjoys being surprised and who values high-quality analytical thinking should read daily) has an interesting post on Steven Pinker.

Pinker asks “[w]hy, if you know a person’s position on gay marriage, can you predict that he or she will want to increase the military budget and decrease the tax rate,” a question he answers by observing that “[p]olitical philosophers have long known that the ideologies are rooted in different conceptions of human nature — a conflict of visions so fundamental as to align opinions on dozens of issues that would seem to have nothing in common.”

Gelman responds by (1) doing some quick GSS correlations, on the basis of which he concludes that “attitudes on such diverse issues are not so highly correlated”; and then (2) attributing Pinker’s error to Pinker’s being a psychologist rather than a political scientist and thus prone to “present[ing] ideas that are thought-provoking but . . . too general to quite work,” in contrast to political scientists who “take such ideas and try to adapt them more closely to particular circumstances.”

Some thoughts:

1. Pinker is clearly right to note that mass political opinions on seemingly diverse issues cohere, and Andrew, I think, is way too quick to challenge this.

I could cite to billions of interesting papers, but I’ll just show you what I mean instead. A recent CCP data collection involving a nationally representative on-line sample of 1750 subjects included a module that asked the subjects to indicate on a six-point scale “how strongly . . . you support or oppose” a collection of policies:  

  1. policy_gun  Stricter gun control laws in the United States.
  2. policy_healthcare  Universal health care.
  3. policy_taxcut  Raising income taxes for persons in the highest-income tax bracket.
  4. policy_affirmative action  Affirmative action for minorities.
  5. policy_warming  Stricter carbon emission standards to reduce global warming.


 Positions clustered on these “diverse” items big time. The average inter-item correlation was 0.66. The Cronbach’s alpha—a scale reliability measure based on item covariance and the number of items—was 0.91.

This is a degree of coherence that would  make any social scientist – psychologist or political scientist – beam. The highest possible alpha is 1.0, and anything above 0.70 is usually regarded as signifying a high degree of reliability.  Low reliability, measured in this way, is it’s own punishment, since it constrains the power of any sort of explanatory or predictive model involving the scale. With a score of 0.91 you can be confident that the power of your model won’t be dissipated by the noise associated with the imprecision of the observable "indicators" you are using to measure the latent variable. 

The latent variable being picked up by these policy items is obviously something akin to right-left political preferences, so let’s call the resulting measure “Liberal_policy.” (Additional items cohered better with each other than with these, forming a second "libertarian policy prefernce" scale; but let's keep things simple.)

Being able to form a scale like this with a general population sample is pretty good evidence in itself (and better than just picking two items out of GSS and seeing if they correlate) that people’s opinions on such matters cohere.

But just to make the case even stronger, let’s consider how much of the variance in liberal policy preferences can be explained by ideology. 

In the same data set, there was a five-point measure for self-described “liberal-conservative ideology” and a  seven-point one for identification with the two major political parties. Those two items were also highly correlated (r = 0.70), so I combined them into a scale (α = 0.82) coded to represent a right-wing ideological disposition, which I labeled “Conserv_repub.”

Regressing Liberal_policy on Conserv_repub, I discovered that the percentage of variance explained (R2) was 0.60. That’s high, as any competent psychologist or political scientist would tell you, and as I’m sure Andrew would agree!

Now Andrew noted that the degree of coherence in political preferences tends to be conditional on other characteristics, such as wealth, education, and political interest. Typically, political scientists use a “political knowledge” measure to assess how coherence in ideological positions vary.

I had a measure of that (a 9-item civics-test sort of thing) in the data set too. So I added it and a cross-product interaction term to my regression model. It bumped up the R2 – variance explained – by 4%, an increment that was statistically significant.  

Seems small, but how practically important is that? A commenter on Andrew’s blog noted that I tend to criticize fixating on R2 as an effect-size measure; my point, which is one that good social scientists—political scientists and psychologists! Andrew too!--have been making for decades is that R2 is not a good measure of the practical significance of an effect size, a matter that has to be determined by use of judgment with relation to the phenomenon at issue.

Well, to help us figure that out, I ran a Monte Carlo simulation to generate the predicted probability that a typical “Liberal Democrat” (-1 SD on Conserv_Repub) and a typical “Conservative Republican” (+1 SD) would support “stricter gun control laws” (seems topical; this is pre-Newtown, so it would be interesting to collect some data now to follow up), conditional on being “low” (-1 SD) or “high” (+1 SD) in political knowledge.

Seems (a) like variance in political knowledge (whatever its contribution to R2) can matter a lot – the probability that a high–political-knowledge Republican will oppose gun control is a lot lower than that for a low–political-knowledge one—but (b) there is still plenty of disagreement even among low–political-knowledge subjects. 

I’d say, then, that Andrew is being a bit too harsh on Pinker’s premise about political preference coherence.

2. Pinker is clearly wrong—not just in his answer but in his style of reasoning—to connect this sort of coherence to “different conceptions of human nature" among people of opposing ideologies

Pinker, however, is indeed doing something very objectionable: he is engaged in rank story-telling

He notes that political philosophers identify ideologies with different conceptions of “human nature,” a “conflict of visions so fundamental as to align opinions on dozens of issues.” Well, maybe political philosophers do do that. But the idea that “different conceptions of ‘human nature’ ” explain coherence and variance in mass political opinion is an empirical claim, and as far as I know there’s not any support for it. 

I think it’s almost certainly false. Measures of ideology of the sort that I have used here have not – as far as I know; please do tell me if I’m wrong: the pleasure of learning something new will more than compensate me for the embarrassment of being shown to be ignorant -- been validated as predictors of “different conceptions of human nature.” Indeed, I think the idea that ordinary members of the public have “conceptions of human nature” is extravagant—the sort of thing only someone who has never ventured outside a university campus would likely believe.

There are myriad theories about the puzzling question of how ordinary people, who really aren’t philosophers, aren’t that interested in politics, and who are very consumed with other things can manage to form coherent ideological preferences. And they’ve been tested empirically.

It’s irritating for anyone who is familiar with all that work to see Pinker advance the sort of claim he does—which he presents not even as a conjecture but as a simple, unqualified, fact-of-the matter report.

3. Pinker’s mistake is one psychologists would resent as much as political scientists.

The sort of thing Pinker is doing here generalizes.  Popular commentators love to reach into the grab bag of decision science mechanisms and construct just-so stories that purport to “explain” complicated phenomena (e.g., political controversy over climate change). 

Good social scientists hate this.  Indeed, Pinker generally doesn’t like it, in fact; he complains about this practice in his excellent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, which admirably tries to connect trends in violence over history to mechanisms that themselves have support in evidence. I find it sort of deflating to see that he seems to adopt a different approach in the writing he does for the New York Times.

But the point is, resentment of story-telling is something that psychologists and political scientists would both experience. It’s not a consequence of Pinker being a psychologist!

4. Ironically, Andrew is making the sort of mistake he says Pinker made.

This last point follows from all the others. Andrew sees Pinker doing something irritating, and then treats a conjecture (I think a pretty uninteresting, implausible one; but all conjectures are created equal – test away!) as a general law that explains this particular instance, etc.

But now I will offer a conjecture, based on an observation-grounded theory.

The observation-grounded theory is that Andrew Gelman has a virtuous Bayesian disposition. That is, he is the sort of person who very happily updates and revises his views, which he always regards as just provisional estimates anyway.

The conjecture: that Andrew, on reflection, will agree that he offered a poor diagnosis (“psychologists generalize without evidence, unlike political scientists, who look for concrete evidence in particulars!”) of Pinker’s objectionable style of argumentation here (which, again, strikes me as uncharacteristic of Pinker himself!).

And now, let’s collect some evidence.

(One more prediction, or hope: Andrew will like my graphic!)

p.s. Ideological coherence in policy prefernces isn't nearly as interesting -- nearly as surprising, puzzling --as ideological or cultural coherence in factual beliefs (e.g., "earth is/is not heating up" & "children of gay & lesbians do worse/no worse in life than ones raised by heterosexual parents." That's what CCP research is all about. Perhaps I'll do another post on that.


Abelson, R.P. A Variance Explanation Paradox: When a Little is a Lot. Psychological Bulletin 97, 129-133 (1985).

Delli Carpini, M.X. & Keeter, S. What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters. (Yale University Press, New Haven; 1996).

Gelman, A. & Hill, J. Data Analysis Using Regression and Multilevel/Hierarchical Models. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge ; New York; 2007).

John, O.P. & Benet-Martínez, V. in Handbook of research methods in social and personality psychology. (eds. H.T. Reis & C.M. Judd) 339-369 (Cambridge University Press, New York; 2000).

King, G. How Not to Lie with Statistics. Am. J. Pol. Sci. 30, 666-687 (1986). 

King, G., Tomz, M. & Wittenberg., J. Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation. Am. J. Pol. Sci 44, 347-361 (2000).

Pinker, S. The better angels of our nature : why violence has declined. (Viking, New York; 2011).

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Reader Comments (11)


That different conceptions of human nature might not be causal in the correlation between views on gay marriage and views on taxes and military budget (in contrast to Pinker's implication), conceptions of human nature may not be completely independent. In other words, might not "conceptions of human nature" largely align with social or political identifications that also align with views on military spending and taxes? Perhaps if you tried to unpack "conceptions of human nature" into concrete attitudes you might not find much to hang your hat on that would be causal to political beliefs, but if you asked liberals and conservatives questions about how they'd characterize their conceptions of human nature you might find some correlation? Imagine asking liberals and conservatives questions like:

"Given the nature of humans, what percentage of the population to you think is likely to try to get away with everything they can if there aren't rules in place to prevent them from doing so."

A) 10% B) 20%.....etc.

Again, without asserting causality....

I think that certainly, if you listen to conservatives or liberals discussing the connection between politics and human nature, you will find that they identify differences. Maybe those presumed differences are empty stereotypes and don't hold up to scientific analysis when you try to unpack Pinker's generalization, but maybe there is something there underneath his broad assertion?. What about considering the influence of church-going, which I believe does break down along lines of political identification, on how people self-identify their conceptualizations of human nature?

==]] Indeed, I think the idea that ordinary members of the public have “conceptions of human nature” is extravagant—the sort of thing only someone who has never ventured outside a university campus would likely believe. [[==

Two points here. The first w/r/t "only someone who has never ventured outside a university campus...." First, who really fits the description? Isn't that the kind of unrealistic cultural stereotype that seems to me to parallel Pinker's unrealistic cultural stereotype? And even further, how can you really describe what such a person, if they really did exist, would likely believe?

Second - I think that even if "views on human nature" might be a meaningless descriptor for characterizing groups of the population (in that it is too vague and broad to be meaningful), I do think that there are probably some related discrete descriptors that would apply (although probably not in a causal way) across the liberal/conservative divide. Mostly, I'm thinking of views about the nature of children and how to structure their environment so that they will develop an intrinsic sense of discipline. Do you not think that views of child-rearing might not show some correlation with political orientation? Do views about the importance of structuring relationships hierarchically align generally with political orientation? Certainly, if we look cross-culturally, views of relationship hierarchies form identifiable patterns. Wouldn't views on child-rearing be, to some degree, related to what might (in a vague and broad manner) be considered a concept of human nature?

Pinker is, I think, playing politics with his assertion - but I also think that his thinking does reflect an underlying truth even if his term "conceptions of human nature" is basically incoherent.

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


- Regarding your point 1, yes I think your graph is excellent. In regard to the specifics, survey responses are noisy (presumably representing a lot of “nonattitudes” in the population). I think that many individual people feel there is a logic connecting all their political beliefs, but different people have different logics. Pinker gave an example of gay marriage and the military budget. There is a wide range of views on these two topics and the correlation is low, because these two issues can be placed in many different conceptual frameworks. What you have shown is that in your survey with those questions you get high correlations. GSS and NES show low correlations. I think it would be fair to say that some aspects of political attitudes can be predicted from other attitudes. In general, attitudes on different issues are more highly correlated with partisanship than with each other. I guess it would be ok to compromise and say that the correlations are moderate. I perhaps was overreacting to Pinker's statement because I'm sensitive to this issue, of people not realizing the diversity of opinions among Americans, especially among those Americans who are not highly politically involved.

- Regarding your point 4, where do I say anything about "a general law"? Here's what I wrote:

Psychology is a universal science of human nature, whereas political science is centered on the study of particular historical events and trends. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that when a psychologist looks at politics, he presents ideas that are thought-provoking but are too general to quite work.

I assume you'll agree with the first sentence. The second sentence is phased very carefully. I don't think that "perhaps it is unsurprising" is anything like claiming "a general law"!

December 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Gelman


1. I agree that individual items are noisy. That's why it's good to look for the sorts of covariances among them that justify aggregating them and treating them as a scale. In doing that, items that "look like" they should have some relatoinship to each other might turn out not to -- because in fact, questions don't always mean to people what researchers think they do or should mean.

2. One *can* use this strategy with NES & GSS items on diverse sorts of policy & form liberal-conservative as well as alternative, recognizable types of scales. E.g., Treier, S. & Hillygus, D.S. The Nature of Political Ideology in the Contemporary Electorate. Public Opinion Quart. 73, 679-703 (2009). And that one really can do this attests to something that is pretty clear to see -- that people's positions on various policies come in packages.

3. What the packages are, how they get formed & transmitted, whether their structure intereacts w/ other sorts of characteristics (like political knowledge) -- those are of course all very fascinating & complex questions. Pinker's imperious hand waving does and should rankle. "Popular writing" is not an excuse; popular writing that consists in story-telling is pernicious. What's more, Pinker *knows* this; that's why his *popular books* are so wonderful. He shouldn't lower the bar for the NYT, even if that is the paper of choice for the hoi palloi.

4. Your "careful wording" notwithstanding (what are you? a yale law professor?!), I still think what you said reflects the premise that psychologists are disciplinarily prone to broad, empirically unsupported claims about human behavior. You say it is "unsurprising" that Pinker does something a good social scientist shouldn't do *because* of the character of psychology.

5. BTW, I think political science, as a discipline, aspires to "universality" with respect to the explanations it gives for human behavior every bit as much as psychology does. And it goes about trying to find mechanism of universal applicability (or trying to find whether they exist at all) in the same way -- by investigating particulars, lots of them, in a way that is motivated by more general surmises and interests. There are differences between psychology & political science approaches to studying mass political opinion -- but they are about things different from, and more interesting than, the proposition that such study should be animated & disciplined by the forms of observation, measurement, and inference that are the signatures of scientific thinking.

6. Thanks for the compliment on my graphic! And for laughing instructively at ones that I've constructed in the past; I've learned a lot, & have a lot still to learn -- and thus something to look forward to.


December 20, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38


Regarding your points 1, 2, and 3, yes, maybe I overreact to claims of predictability of opinions and, in response, overemphasize their unpredictable aspects.

Regarding your point 4, you write: "You say it is 'unsurprising' that Pinker does something a good social scientist shouldn't do *because* of the character of psychology." No: I never said "because"! OK, I see that you put *because* in asterisks and not quotes: maybe that's a way of implying I said something without actually saying I said it (I've heard that Yale law professors have been known to have difficulty with quotation marks), but I thought I better make this clear! To me, the phrasing "Perhaps it is unsurprising" makes it clear that I'm just giving an impression.

Regarding point 5, I really do think psychology is more universal than political science. Sure, there are some aspects of political science that are universal, but my own work, for example, on Democrats and Republicans is unapologetically both time- and space-bound in a way that psychology certainly tries not to be.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Gelman

For what it is worth, having read the book because Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate highlighted it, Pinker is clearly referencing Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions in his remarks. It is really Sowell's argument that differing visions of human nature are the basis of broader political differences, an argument Pinker has obviously felt was persuasive.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

1. This is interesting'; I'll have to write a separate blog on this, particularly w/ reference to idea that Mary Douglas's worldviews embody different views of "nature," if not human nature. But for now:
2. Go out & ask ordinary people what their conception of human nature is; they'll look blankly at you. *Give* them whatever you think the conceptions of human nature are inherently in "liberalism" & "conservativism" & ask them to explain how it connects the positions of "liberals" & "conservatives" on (a) minimum wage, (b) embryonic stem cell research, (c) climate change (& in particular whether it is being caused by humans), etc. They will call the police. In fact, just ask them to explain anything, and you'll largely draw a blank.
3. Ask those people what their positions are on those & like issues & their views will cohere. They will be highly correlated, moreover, w/ other people who share values like "egalitarianism," "individualism," "communitarianism" & the like. But ask them to connect those values to the factual beliefs & policies -- again, a blank stare.

Can you explain how people w/ the same values would still end up w/ packages of shared belief. Easily.

4. Give me whatever conceptions of nature you like & I'll connect them w/ arguments of equal cogency to any set of policies or beliefs you like.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

@Isabel: Then they are guilty of conspiring to tell stories. I've had it up to here w/ Athena-from-Dr.-Zeuss's-forehead pscyhologizing by people like Sowell --& Hegel & Freud & Marx & all the other pseudo scientists of "human nature." Pinker should -- does --know better!

People don't have visions; visions have people -- that's truly astonishing & explaining how that could be requires cogent mechanisms & evidence.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

But any assertion not supported by a formal, peer-reviewed empirical experiment or study could be termed a "story" or a part of one, and you tell such stories yourself, particularly re: liberal democracy and the like. And of course we all do -- that's an essential component of how human beings communicate. In particular, for example, your claim that asking "ordinary" people for their views on human nature is a sufficient disproof of the idea that such views, whether explicit or implicit, have no relation to people's political, social, or moral opinions and values seems to me to be itself based more upon a story you're interested in telling than upon the flimsy empirical dressing you give it. And that's fine (aside from the mild hypocrisy), but it is consistently overlooking the real possibility that opinions and values cohere into recognizable clumps not out of some group or social loyalty, as with sports fans, but rather out of an inner logic or rationality that simply not everyone is able to articulate. And that's only to say that culture works on unconscious as well as conscious levels.

December 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLarry


Fair, but let me spell things out a bit more & then tell me whether you believe I'm being hypocritical or even just confused, self-contradictory.

1. By "story telling," I mean a certain kind of abuse of decison science or social science. It's consists in sifting through the grab bag of social mechanisms that genuine empirical research supports to find ones that fit whatever sort of conclusion you are pre-committed to reaching and then describing the conclusion as if it were in fact it were "empirically" suppported by "data" that uniquely support that position.

2. Among the many many many vices that peer review doesn't guard against is story-telling of this sort.

3. The general theories that supply the framework for generating hypotheses, designing studies, and interpreting empirical results are certainly stories in some sense. But they are not what I'm objecting to. In fact, it would be impossible to have empirical understanding that wasn't embedded in more general theories. But when one uses theories in this way to motivate empirical inquiry into what is admittedly not yet understood, one is not engaged in "story telling"; indeed, it is almost the opposite of story-telling, which consists in post-hoc, lawyerly assembly of pieces of convenient evidence for the sake of making a general account of how things work, and usually an associated policy prescription, seem "empirically demonstratable."

3. I don't have a problem w/ conjecture, scholarly or pragmatic. Scholarly is in the form of syntheses that seek to combine evidence we have and extend them in a speculative way to things that puzzle us. That's a kind of narrative hypothesizing. It motivates inquiry. The only thing is to *admit* that that's what it is. Pragmatic conjecture is policy advocacy, essentially, that reflects one's best surmises about how to extrapolate from existing knowledge to policy interventions. This will always be necessary: first, the need for action doesn't coordinate its schedule with the accumulation of knowledge; second, the *way* in which we get empirical knowledge inevitably involves simplification, modeling, reduction of information -- so we can control the forces we want to observe & can be confident that we see what we think we see when experiment -- and as a result, there will always be an "external validity" leap of some dimension; third, policy prescriptions informed by pragmatic conjecture of this sort *are* themselves tests of hypotheses. No problem w/ any of this so long as we are clear that this is what's going on.

4. There's also a differnce between pseudo-science story telling and moral and political argument. I am *for* the liberal democratic state b/c I believe it is the best one, morally & politically. There are a cluster of reasons. Some are indeed based on beliefs about how the way of life it involves -- including the central place of markets, which tame and domesticate our values the ( pacifying influence of doux commerce theseis), and also habituate us to cooperative engagement with othershabituate us to cooperative engagement with others--that depend on empirical evidence. I will listen to arguments about the values, and am open to evidence on the facts -- or at least I aspire to be. But the disposition to action that is associated with being a partisan of the liberal democratic state (which means an enemy of any other sort of partisanship) is energetic, passionate, judgmental, combattive -- whatever is required to defend it.

5. Ideas do cohere; that's not really in dispute, I don't think. The question is how to explain mass opinion formatoin. I'm open to any account that reflects intelligible mechanisms and that admits of testing of some kind by evidence (doesn't have to be just "experiments" etc, either; anything that reflects disciplined observation, measurement, inference). My reaction to the "philosophies furnish ideas that cohere and thereby organize and guide individual preferences, beliefs, actions" is (a) that it was being put forth by Pinker & is notoriously put forward by pseudo-scientists in the story-telling mode; (b) involves, in its familiar form (& it is super familiar) no intelligible mechansms of human behaivr but instead fantatstic, confused, functionalists notions; and (c) is contrary to lots & lots of evidence about mass behavior, which show that people don't possess philosophical theories or engage in philosophical theorizing in forming their "policy preferences," much less their beliefs about policy-relevant facts (my main interest). Present to me the version of the claim that doesn't have these problems -- I hope I'll listen; and if you thnk I'm not listening, please do point out to me that I'm being inconsistent, even hypocritical, for it is certainly plausible to me that I, like anyone else, would be lulled by commitment to what I think I know into a state of resistance to learning that I'm wrong -- & I'm grateful to anyone who helps me to escape from such a misadventure.

December 22, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

I'm not quite able to follow your points in your last response to me.

So then, let me ask make some statements/questions to help me understand if our views differ (and perhaps where). (I apologize in advance for the repetitive nature of some of what I will write.) I'll number them to make a response, if you want to take the time, easier. (I understand that my questions are kind of basic, and won't take offense if you don't want to take the time to answer/respond to any of them, let alone all of them.)

(1) I think that framing the question in terms of "conceptions of human nature" is too vague to be meaningful. (2) However, I think that if we break down that term into some specific attitudes that arguably indirectly reflect views on human nature, we would find some that correlate with political views; As an example, I offer views on child-rearing (which I would argue are related to views of human nature). (3) I will say again that I don't believe that those associations reflect a causal relationship, although they might speak to either mediator or moderator relationships.

I will add something further. I don't think that "values" are causal either. (4) Like "conceptions of human nature" or specific attitudes that might indirectly reflect elements of "conceptions of human nature," I think that there are correlations or perhaps moderator or mediator relationships, but not a causality. I think that causality - if it can be identified (if it isn't just another form of the nature/nurture false dichotomy) - lies elsewhere.

There are three reasons for my view: (5) I think that I basically share many "values" with people that are strong disagreement with me on political issues. For example, with JFP (as related to the previous thread); we both respect freedoms, don't want to infringe upon freedom of speech, are against violence, etc. I would be hard pressed to find "values" that I think we are in strong disagreement on, although we probably disagree strongly over many political issues, (6) I think that the way that people define "values" are subject to a kind of sampling bias. Categorizing "values" is inherently biased by political identifications combined with the vagaries of language. For example, I have to laugh when self-identified "libertarians" identify me as a "statist" who wishes to conform to authority and force everyone else to do so as well. This happens quite often in political discussions on blogs - but anyone who knows me would say that if anything, if we had to limit my approach to authority to a simplistic binary framework, I would lean towards being "anti-authoritarian."

(7) I believe that if there is a causality behind why people identify with various political beliefs or align for or against gun control, or identify as a "realist" or a "skeptic," etc., it is a product of identity creation. (8) This seems to me to be consistent with your work that points to social, cultural, or personal "motivations" as seen in "motivated reasoning" - be it a "motivation" to protect my ego as not being "wrong" about something, or a "motivation" to protect my identity within my "tribe," etc.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Also fair, Dan. In fact, I largely agree with you re: points 1 to 4. Point 5 seems more problematic to me, but there too I would agree with the first sentence at least, if I could add a phrase: "Ideas do cohere, even if not always or not necessarily in a way we're conscious of." You might call the notion of such inchoate coherence fantastic or confused, but then that sort of assertion itself would seem weak and unconvincing in the face of common experiences of ideas that we sense are right but for reasons we can't articulate. In any case, my point is simply that it seems on the face of it very likely that some sort of general idea -- such as, but not necessarily, a general notion of human nature -- does underlie and explain much, though certainly not all, of the clumping of policy preferences that Pinker refers to, and that Gelman, as far as I can see, simply qualiifies. Without such a general notion to link them, whether or not consciously, it seems difficult to explain why such clumps of policy preferences, even if only weakly correlated, could arise in groups in the first place. That is, if ideological groups are formed and maintained simply through a desire for group cohesion, then any assortment of policy preferences would do, provided only that they're more or less distinctive. But perhaps I'm misunderstanding what you're saying.

December 22, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMetamorf

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