Sowell, Carlson, Barone: fools, knaves, or simply victims of a cognitive illusion?

by Andrew Gelman on August 18, 2011 · 1 comment

in Campaigns and elections,Media

A colleague writes:

I saw your article on the geographically varying relationship between income and political party. A few years ago I noticed a rebuttal to Thomas Sowell’s claim that Democratic voters must be rich since, in selected states, the richer counties are more Democratic. Classic ecological fallacy.

I wonder, though, if you’re right to say that journalists come by this misconception by simple exposure. Isn’t it possible that the idea that Democrats tend to be wealthy is actually part of a disinformation campaign? Sowell, Carlson, and Barone may not be impartial observers of their surroundings, and the idea of rich Democratics—“limousine liberals”—serves a political agenda. Different authors may even have picked the idea up from a common source. It would be interesting to trace this meme’s appearance in journalistic outlets and blogs and see if there’s any evidence for coordination.

I dunno. My guess is that Sowell and Carlson don’t care much about the facts, one way or another. Sowell, at least in his political writings, is an ideologue, and Carlson is a hack. It would be interesting to hear how they would reply to being confronted with their mistakes, but I have a feeling they’d manage to talk their way out of it, one way or another, without admitting they made a mistake. (I could be wrong, though; any of you can feel free to contact either of them and see. I already have Jonathan Chait pissed off at me, so why not add a couple more pundits to the list?)

Barone, though, is a different story. His authority rests on his expertise with election statistics. It’s hard for me to believe he’d want to get these things wrong on purpose. I think he just made a statistical error which happened to coincide with his worldview, so he had no reason to suspect it. (I did send him an email a few years ago to ask him about this income/voting thing, but he didn’t respond. He probably gets so many emails that he doesn’t even see all of them.)

My guess, then, is that it’s not disinformation but rather a simple mistake that gets spread by the Sowells and Carlsons of the world because it fits into their worldview. Sorta like those pundits on the left who were sure that the Democrats lost the House of Representatives in 1994 because they weren’t liberal enough for the voters.

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