Saturday, June 14, 2008

Political Scientists Vote More Often Than Other Professors

One theme of my recent research has been the moral behavior of ethics professors -- do they behave any better than others of similar social background? There's good reason to anticipate that they would: Presumably they care a lot and think a lot about morality, and one might hope (at least I would hope!) that would have a positive effect on their behavior.

However, some people don't think we should expect this. After all, doctors smoke, police commit crimes, economists invest badly. Whether they do so any less than anyone else is hard to assess. (However, the evidence I've seen so far suggests that doctors do smoke less and economists do invest better, contra the cynic. I don't know about police.)

Half a year ago I posted a couple of reflections on the lack of data regarding whether political scientists vote more often in public elections than other professors do (here and here). With perhaps more enthusiasm than wisdom, I decided to go out and get the data myself. Josh Rust and I (and some helpful RAs) gathered official voting histories of individuals in California, Florida, North Carolina, and Washington State (Minnesota pending) and matched those records with online information about professors in universities in those states. (The California data included only statewide elections; the other states include at least some local election data.) We looked at the years 2000-2007.

The data suggest that political scientists do vote more often, averaging 1.11 votes/year as opposed to 0.93 votes/year for a comparison group of professors drawn randomly from all other departments except philosophy.

We ruled out gender, political party, state of residence, age, ethnicity, and institution type (research-oriented vs. teaching-oriented) as explanatory factors. All of these factors either had no effect on vote rate (gender, party, institution type) or were balanced between the groups (state, age, ethnicity). The one factor that did have an effect and wasn't balanced between the groups was academic rank: Non-tenure-track faculty voted less often, and there were fewer tenure-track faculty in the comparison group than among the political scientists. However, even looking just at tenure-track faculty, political scientists still vote more: 1.12 votes/year for political scientists, 0.99 for comparison faculty. (Political science department affiliation also remains predictive of vote rate in multiple regression models including rank and other factors.)

These data support my ethicists project in two ways: First, they show at least some relationship between professorial career choice and real-world behavior; and second, since voting is widely (and I think rightly) seen as a duty, it's a measure of one piece of moral behavior. We can see if ethicists (and perhaps especially political philosophers) are more likely to perform this particular duty than are non-ethicists. Results on that soon!


Anonymous said...

I doubt poli sci profs vote more often than others out of any sense of *duty*. These guys (they seem -- like philosophers -- to be male by an overwhelming majority) vote because political processes are their *passion.* They're fanboys of political process. Or so it seems from my limited experience.

Richard Y Chappell said...

I suspect relatively few ethics professors would consider voting a duty (or at least fewer than the base population). So I'm not sure it's a good example to use. If you find that they vote less often than other people, that might simply show that they have unconventional moral views. (Which is precisely what you'd expect if all that philosophizing makes a difference!) If they turn out to vote more often than others, I'd expect that's for the reason KB points out above.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, kboughan and richard! I agree that political science profs may vote more often due to a passion for politics that makes them want to vote rather than out of a sense of duty -- though they may also feel more duty about it than others, too. (The website of one of the PoliSci departments I looked at showed students wearing "Vote or Die!" t-shirts.) I don't mean to venture any particular hypothesis about causation here.

Richard: It would be interesting to see data on that question. I suspect that if, indeed, ethicists don't tend to consider voting a duty that may be post-hoc ratonalization rather than genuine moral insight. Straightforward Kantian and virtue ethics approaches seem to recommend the morality of voting (not voting doesn't seem a universalizable maxim; voting expresses the virtue of civic engagement). Consequentialism, though, may make the issue more problematic: Does the benefit to society of your being informed and voting outweigh the costs to yourself of voting?

Of course all these analyses are simplistic. But I take it as a given that voting is a duty, and I hope I'm on solid ground and with the sensible majority in saying so! (This isn't to say that it's an overriding duty that admits of no excuses.)

If it is a duty and moral philosophers do it less, there are many possible explanations. One is that moral philosophy tends to lead one's opinion away from, rather than toward, what's morally right (perhaps because it improves one's ability to rationalize). Another possibility is that such intellectual approaches to ethics somehow weaken the connection between moral opinion and moral behavior.

Richard Y Chappell said...

Well, for what it's worth, I both personally like voting and don't think it's a duty. There are any number of ways to contribute as a citizen, so an exclusive focus on voting strikes me as a piece of unthinking fetishism -- especially when applied to those who live in gerrymandered districts and states where the outcome is all but guaranteed in advance. (Similarly, the maxim may be precisified in ways that are universalizable.)

Further, I think it's obligatory to take care to vote well if you vote at all; many people who vote do so impermissibly and make the world a much worse place. We would all be better off if fewer "patriotism"-fevered "terrorist"-fearful warmongers voted, for example.

But if you're taking the duty to vote as an indisputable given, I guess that's that.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for following up, Richard! I'm sorry if I came across grumpy. I seem to be having a grumpy day, as my wife would no doubt confirm!

I appreciate that it's contestable whether voting is a duty (or whether, more weakly, it is morally better to vote than not to vote), assuming a companion duty to be informed enough to vote reasonably well. But virtually every measurable morally assessible action where ordinary folks' behavior diverges is disputable. I have a study about stealing ethics books, but it's disputable whether stealing philosophy books from libraries is generally wrong. I have a study on students donating money to other needy students, but maybe people really should be directing their charity elsewhere. Etc.

For this reason, I don't want to hang too much on any one study, but to look instead for overall patterns. (This is wise for other reasons too!) If some people doubt my assumptions about the morality or immorality of one type of behavior, maybe they'll still go along with me on others!

Genius said...

I'd say, on the whole, you are one of the least grumpy bloggers I have ever conversed with!

As to why they vote you could probably collect one additional piece of data (e.g. if they are Kantian etc) and use that as a control to see if it has harmed the experiment.

As to why people vote I think its best explained in terms of habits and social pressure.

I expect that you will find that voting is actually related to how homogeneous (esp politically) the department is - you may find that ethic professors actually vote more than political scientist professors.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Genius, for your kind remark!

It would be neat to look for a relationship with normative ethical stance, but it would also take a lot of work since stance is rarely readily evident from one's website. But maybe someone really in the know about normative ethics could look at a list of names and affiliations and sort those ethicists she knows into groups by normative stance, then we could look for effects. (Any volunteers?) But I suspect that the numbers involved would be too small to pick up any but very large effects.

As to why people vote, you may be right. In fact, those factors may better explain most of our moral behavior than any actual attention to morality or duty!

The homogeneity idea is interesting, but I suspect it doesn't fit with the other results that have been coming in, which I plan to post tomorrow or Tuesday.

Genius said...

I was thinking that even a limited sample might give some indication of whether it was a factor.

As to the homogeneous theory, It sounded nice at the time but I'm always happy to be proven wrong by the numbers.