Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Your Probably a Dum Voter: Let Me Tell You Why

Before you get all offended 'n stuff, this blog post applies to me. Before the election, from my ivory tower  I looked down upon the low information voter. They are ruining democracy! They don't even know what they're voting for! People ought to have to pass basic knowledge tests to be eligible to vote! Plato was right, only the smrt people should be able to vote!

Alas! As I filled in my ballot today I realized I am the very embodiment of the qualities I so despise in others. Basically, I'm writing this blog post to myself: I am the dum voter.

Your Probably a Dum Voter: Reason 1

I'm beginning with an assumption that I don't think is unreasonable but may turn out to be false: The outcomes of local elections affect your life more than outcomes of presidential elections.

Why does this mean your dum? Because you, like most people, spend all your political energy learning about national politics and none or precious little about local politics. Of course it needn't be all of one and none of the other; but a smrt voter should spend at least as much time learning about the local candidates and their polices as they do with national candidates.

When I was voting, the first page was for the presidential candidate. I've watched the debates and read about each candidate enough to have at least a moderate understanding of their views--at least sufficient to make a choice consistent with my own political commitments.

The remaining pages were for state and local positions: Candidates for
  • 6th Circuit Supreme Court Justice
  • the freakin' Chief Coroner (who knew you voted for the chief coroner?)
  • US Senate (5 candidates)
  • US Representative
  • Ohio Justice of the Supreme Court (4 candidates)
  • Ohio Chief Justice of the Supreme Court
  • Ohio State Senator (2 candidates)
  • Ohio State Representative (2 candidates)
  • Wood County Clerk of Common Pleas (I don't even know what that is)
  • Wood County Prosecuting Attorney
  • Wood County Treasurer
  • Wood County Sheriff
  • Wood County Engineer (WTF? I elect the county engineer? How am I supposed to evaluate his/her competence?)
  • Wood County Commissioner 
  • Wood County Common Pleas Court Judge
  • Referendum on tax levy for parks
  • Referendum on tax levy for seniors center
I had no idea how to vote. I had no idea what platforms the respective candidates in each category were running on--let alone know their names. If state and local elections affect my life at least as much as national elections, man am I dum.

On the other hand, consider much time and energy it would take me to learn and critically evaluate the character, record, and policies of each candidate for each position. I mean, who does that? I'm sure some people do, but I'd be shocked...shocked, I tell you! if more that 1/10th of voters do this.

This brings me to the next reason your a dum voter:

Your Probably a Dum Voter: Reason 2
A while ago I saw a study showing that within about 75% accuracy you can predict people's views on scientific issues based on their political affiliation [I tried googling to find it but for some reason I can't find it now. When I find it, I'll post the link]. Think about that for a minute. Why should your political beliefs have any bearing on whether you accept a scientific theory? They are entirely distinct domains of knowledge.

Whether I am Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, etc... should have no effect on whether I believe the earth is an oblate spheroid. Yet somehow, people's political beliefs infect their empirical beliefs. My evaluation of a scientific theory should be independent of my political beliefs. One should not predict the other.

This way of thinking sounds loco but there's a simple explanation. We have limited time and energy to investigate stuff so we employ a heuristic: We adopt the views of people we know have similar views to us. Their values and worldview are similar to ours and so it makes sense--as a heuristic--to go along with whatever our group believes. Besides, if we don't believe what our group believes, there's a risk that we'll be kicked out of the group.

So, in a way, we can see that it's rational to adopt the dominant beliefs of your political tribe. The problem is that tribes can get things wrong. A more classical view of rationality suggests we should evaluate each of our beliefs independently--especially if they aren't connected in any obvious way.

For example, having a preference for small government (unless it's military spending) isn't logically connected in any way to whether evolution is a better theory than creationism. However, if you're a creationist, darn tootin' I'm going to probably correctly predict that you vote Republican.

Or, having a preference for a strong social safety net isn't logically connected to whether GMOs are safe for human consumption. However, if you're anti-GMO or anti-nuclear, you can bet your bottom dollar you probably identify as a liberal.

So what's going on here? Is it or is it not rational to believe what your group believes and vote along with your group? Here I think we need to make a distinction between our political/ethical beliefs and our scientific beliefs. We'll get back to the issue of scientific beliefs, let's focus on voting practice for now.

Straight-ticket voting is when someone votes one party all the way down the ballot at all levels of gubmint. For most people it's unlikely they have time and energy (and the interest) DO THERE REESURCH on all the candidates at the national, state, and local level and have a job, raise a family, watch cats videos and foosball, etc...  It makes sense to vote according to your party affiliation.

A liberal can say with a reasonable degree of confidence that the Democratic state representative will more closely represent their values than the Republican candidate...and the same logic applies all the way down the ticket. And vice versa for Republicans. (And Libertarians and Greens, for that matter.)

Here's a distinction worth noting. For the reasons described above, I don't think it's unreasonable to vote straight ticket. That is, it's not unreasonable to assume that the candidates at all levels of government representing the party you identify with will put forth and defend policies more or less consistent with your own values (relative to other parties's candidates). Therefore, your not a dum voter for voting a straight ticket.

However, I think it's dum to base your assent or dissent of scientific beliefs based on your political party's beliefs. Generally speaking, scientific knowledge and political beliefs are not (or at least should not) be connected in any obvious way. Turning to your political tribe to determine your scientific beliefs is dum. For your scientific beliefs, you should turn to scientists. That's the correct heuristic.

Conclusion: AmI Dum or Not?
Let it be resolved that I will pay at least as much attention to local politics as I do to national politics. So long as it's reasonable to assume that local politics affect my life at least as much as national politics, I will be less dum if I do this.

Let it be resolved that in the absence of information, it's not dum to vote a straight ticket but it is dum to turn to my political tribe for guidance on my scientific beliefs (and other non political beliefs).

Interesting tidbit: Suppose you learn that someone split their ticket: They voted for representatives of different parties for different positions. You might think, "oh, they must really know all the details!" It turns out that the odds are that this person is a low information voter. Low information voters (LIV) are more likely than moderate and high information voters to vote a split-ticket. LIV split their ticket 34% of the time, average level voters split 18% of the time, and high information voters split only 10% of the time. Article


  1. I completely agree with knowing what your local offices and nominations are when voting; except for some of those other "positions" - engineer, really!?

    Unfortunately, in such an opportunistic society in which we have freedoms to vote and also to drown our minds in cat videos and bodies in junk food and allow the media to convince us not to think or look for information ourselves; it does make more sense to vote in accordance with the party you primarily agree with. That seemed to be what the republicans and even the "loud" evangelicals were touting: don't look at it as a vote for Trump, but a vote for the issues.

    I think the biggest error in aligning with a solid ticket is when certain parties deviate from the definition of their original platform and then the "people" don't realize what the platform of a party says. I will plea guilty for not knowing in detail the platforms of each, especially "my" own party (typically republican, but looking to re-register as completely independent before the next "local" election).
    Have you compared the platforms of Rep, Dem, and Lib? 54 pages, 35 pages, and 7 pages.
    Definitions and knowing those definitions tend to be the downfall of making any choice.

    I used to think having political parties was dumb; however, I understand why: how do you explain your values and stances on issues to everyone easily? Especially when you are talking about an entire country. I think that is why Libs, and other "lesser" parties don't seem to contend very well with the two "major" parties. Nobody really knows what they (the "lesser" parties) really stand for and their stances are presumed very similar to the "majors".

    That was a very interesting tidbit! (LIVs vs. M-HIVs)

    I would like you to elaborate more on the, "Generally speaking, scientific knowledge and political beliefs are not (or at least should not) be connected in any obvious way."
    What are some political beliefs and scientific knowledge that have been connected in an obvious way?

    I don't know about a concrete thought of "For your scientific beliefs, you should turn to scientists. That's the correct heuristic."
    I'm sure there are overturned scientific theories that seemed to only be overturned when the previous scientific majority died out and no one was around to take a prideful stance on the truly incorrect theory. I do agree with the idea that if we are making a choice, we should be well informed and not completely rely on someone else's opinion and findings on the matter.

    Thanks for the thought!

    BTW - a little (grammar) critique: did you mean to spell "dumb" as "dum" and "you're" as "your". Sorry, the grammar nazi in me was curious.

  2. Edit: the 2016 Democratic Platform is 51 pages, I had printed the draft which was 35 pages at the time.