Friday, March 20, 2009

Political Scientists and Political Philosophers Aren't More Likely to Show Extreme Patterns in Vote Rate

Last year, Josh Rust and I looked at the rates at which political scientists vote, compared to other professors. We also looked at the rates at which political philosophers voted, compared to ethicists in general and to philosophers not specializing in ethics or political philosophy. Our main finding (see here) was that all groups voted at about the same rate, except for political scientists, who voted about 10-15% more often. This fits with our general finding (so far) that by a variety of measures ethicists don't behave much differently than other people of similar social background.

The result that surprised me most from that study, though, and the one I keep coming back to in my mind, was this: The variance in voting rate was the the same (really, virtually exactly the same) for all the groups. I had expected that extreme views about voting -- either about its pointlessness or its importance -- would be overrepresented among political scientists and political philosophers, and that this would be reflected in the voting patterns. Maybe political philosophers aren't any more likely to vote, on average, I thought -- but there'd be a fair number who were highly conscientious, voting in virtually every election, and a fair number who were principled non-voters. If this were the case, they should show a wider spread of voting rates -- or in other words a higher variance. However, we found no such thing.

Excluding the non-voters for a minute, let's look at the distribution of voting rates among the sampled groups: political philosophers, political scientists, non-ethicist philosophers, and the comparison group of other professors, in the following four charts. (Each group gets its own chart. On the x-axis is the number of votes per year, on the y-axis is the percentage of the group that votes at that rate.)

The thing to notice is that there's no more spread in any of these groups than any of the others. Each shows basically the same hump in the middle. (The dip just to the left of the 1.00 votes per year in each group is due to the fact that professors are more likely to vote about once every two years [.50] or about once every year [1.00] than three times every four years [.75]. It's also worth noting that local election data are missing for some regions, so this chart somewhat underestimates the overall voting rate.)

The zeros are a little harder to interpret: For about 25% of sampled professors no voting record was found -- which might reflect a pattern of not voting among those professors, but might also reflect registration under a different name or in a different area. So the following numbers certainly overestimate the number of non-voters. But notice again that there is no tendency for overrepresentation at this end of the scale either, among political scientists or political philosophers (the variations in the percentages here are all within the range of chance variation).

Percentage of sampled professors with no voting record found:
political philosophers: 22.4%
political scientists: 26.2%
non-ethicist philosophers: 29.1%
comparison professors: 26.9%
I find the overall results particularly striking for political philosophers: They are neither, on average, more prone to vote than other professors, nor are they bimodally split between conscientious voters and principled non-voters. Most of them just vote occasionally, sporadically, like the rest of us. It's as though all their thinking about politics has no influence on their voting behavior. (I have other evidence that suggests that it has no influence on their political party, either, but that's for another day.)


Anonymous said...

I would only expect a difference in voting rates on the assumption that professors are more epistemically and practically rational than the average person. I have never been given any reason to believe that they are (on average more rational). Some clearly are, such as, for example, Singer. But most are not, and many are wildly irrational.

Anonymous said...

I think a degree of caution is needed in interpreting results like these.

To read the results as meaning that "all their thinking about politics has no influence on their voting behavior" would involve a number of assumptions.

Firstly, the uniform outcome (a similar voting frequency to the average population) would only entail that their political theorising had no effect, if the individuals were considered somehow the same in nature as those from the group who hadn't been involved in such theorising.

By way of analogy, if, after ten years of hard training I run a race and come in perfectly level with another competitor who had never trained in his or her life, it would not mean that the training had no effect on my perfomance.

Now, without suggesting that the political theorists theorising is somehow akin to 'training' or improving in any way, we must surely accept that the group IS different in nature from the other group precisely because of its defining feature - their chosen lifestyle and work. The similarity in outcome does not, therefore, entail an inconsequential process.

Secondly, whilst the results are interesting, it's obviously necessary to recognise the limitations of the definitions involved. Voting behaviour is defined, understandably, in behaviourist terms - the physical act or voting or not voting. The level of abstraction involved in establishing this neat dichotomy excludes the rich spectrum of internal motivations which, elsewhere, may emerge and manifest themselves as various other forms of social and political behaviour or communication.

It is understandable that for practical reasons any study must draw limits however the inherently social nature of political processes and institutions may result in serious omission if taken to support absolute claims.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, anon and Andrew!

Anon: I see something like what you've said as the big, underlying issue here. What, really, is the relationship between (rational) reflection and actual behavior -- for professors or anyone else? There are lots of ways to study this question, but across a variety of approaches, the results are not as flattering for humankind as one might hope.

Andrew: I agree with your concerns. No study of this sort could compel, all by itself, a broad general conclusion about the relationship between thought about politics and political behavior. As you suggest, there are various alternative explanations. The first of your alternative explanations seems a little odd to me, though, since presumably if political philosophers differ from other professors antecedently it would be in having (on average) *more* interest in politics and thus (presumably) a greater, not a lesser, antecedent likelihood of voting. On your second point: I confess my own inclination is to give little weight to the tangle of justifications and rationalizations behind (what I see as) moral and immoral behaviors. Behavior is where the rubber meets the road.

Anonymous said...

I lost faith many years ago in comparing what people know and what they do. There was 30-40 years ago the same proportion of racists within intellectuals (even Nobel prizes) and blue collars. The FBI just arrested a 62 years old prof who planned to rape a five years old girl (they did not say if he was teaching ethics, but it would not surprise me). Political scientists or philosophers make a living out of their knowledge, it does not make of them activists. Only five percent are, and you would not see that in your results.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I hope what you say is not true, Claude, though I fear it might be.

The reason I hope it's not true is that it seems to me that *thinking things through* is worthwhile. If it's not, then when I want to do what's right, it doesn't seem that there's any point in my trying to figure it out intellectually. (I know there are some leaps in the argument here.)