Archive for the ‘government’ Category

On the recent Pew poll contrasting differences as to the “very big” problems we face today

October 20, 2018

An online news item appearing on 15 October 2018 proclaims that “Americans don’t just disagree on the issues. They disagree on what the issues are.” The article, by Dylan Scott on the Vox website, reports on a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, involving registered voters in the U.S., between 24 September and 7 October. Polarizing disagreement is a recurring theme in the world, and keeping the tension up sells ads, so it is not surprising to see the emphasis in both the article and in the Pew report on major differences in people’s perceptions of what counts as a “very big” problem in the U.S. today. But a closer look at the data gives hope for finding ways to communicate across barriers that may look more significant than they actually are.

There’s no mention in the article of the sampling error, uncertainty, or confidence level, but the Pew site indicates that, overall, sampling error is 1.5%. But the Vox article mentions only the total sample size and fails to say that the registered voter portion of the respondents is smaller by a couple of thousand. Further, the sampling error jumps up to 2.6% for respondents indicating support for a Republican candidate, and to 2.3% for respondents supporting a Democrat. Again, the differences being played up are quite large, so there’s little risk of making too much out of a small difference. It’s good to know just how much of a difference makes a difference, though.

That said, neither Pew nor the Vox story mentions the very strong agreement between the different groups supporting opposing party candidates when the focus is on the relative magnitudes of agreement on aligned issues. Survey research typically focuses, of course, on percentages of responses to individual questions. Only measurement geeks like me wonder whether questions addressing a common theme could be related in a way that might convey more information. My curiosity was piqued, even though it is impossible to properly evaluate a model of this kind from the mere summary percentages. I knew if I found any correspondences they might just be accidents or coincidences, but I wanted to see what would happen.

So I typed up the text of the 18 issues concerning the seriousness of the problems being confronted in the US today, along with the percentages of registered voters saying each is a “very big” problem today. I put it all into SPSS and made a few technical checks to see if any major problems of interpretation would emerge from the nonlinear and ordinal percentages. The plots and correlations I did indicated that the same general results could be inferred from both the Pew percentages and their logit transformations.

While I was looking at a scatter plot of the Republican vs Democrat agreement percentages I noticed something interesting. I had been wondering if perhaps the striking differences in the groups’ willingness to say problems were serious might be a matter of relative emphases. Might the Republican supporters be less willing to find anything a big problem, but to nonetheless rank the issues in the same order as the Democrat supporters? This is, after all, exactly the kind of pattern commonly found in data from various surveys, assessments, and tests. No matter whether a respondent scores low overall, or scores high, the relative order of things stays the same.

Now, this is true in the kind of data I work with because considerable care is invested in composing questions that are intended to hang together like that. The idea is to deliberately vary the agreeability or difficulty of the questions so they all tap the same basic construct and demonstrably measure the same thing. When these kind of data are obtained, different questions measuring the same thing can be asked of different people without compromising the unit of measurement. That is, each different examinee or respondent can answer a unique set of questions and still have a measure comparable with anyone else’s. Like I said, this does not just happen by itself, but has to come about through a careful process of design and calibration. But the basic principles are well-established as being of longstanding and proven value across wide areas of research and practice.

So I was wondering if there might be one or more subsets of questions in the Pew data that would define the same problem magnitude dimension for supporters of both Republican and Democratic candidates. And as soon as I looked at the scatterplot of the percentages from the two groups, I saw that yes, indeed, there appeared to be four groups of issues that lined up along shared slopes. A color-coded version of that plot is in Figure 1.

The one statistical inference problem that emerged in examining these ordinal data concerns the yellow dot that is lowest and furthest to the left. At 8% agreement from the Republican supporters it was pulled away from the linear relation further than the other correspondences. When transformed into a log-odds unit, that single problematic difference lines up well with the other yellow dots further to the right.

The identity line in the figure shows where exact agreement between the two groups would be. That line marks out the connection between the same percentages of respondents agreeing an issue is a “very big” problem. We can see that the three green dots very nearly fall on that identity line. Just below them is a row of blue dots almost parallel with the identity line. Then there’s a third row of yellow dots further down, indicating more absolute disagreement between the two groups on these issues, but also showing a quite strong agreement as to their relative magnitudes within that group. Finally, there is another, red, line of dots in the lower right corner of the figure that marks out a more extreme range of absolute disagreement, but is also quite parallel to the identity line.

Fisher2018PewFig1

Figure 1 Initial plot of Republican vs Democrat Percentages agreement as to “Very Big” problems

Figures 2-5 below illustrate each of these groups of issues separately, giving further information on the problems and showing the regression lines and correlations for each contrast. The same colors have been retained to aid in seeing which groups of issues in Figure 1 are being shown.

The four areas of problems seem to me to correspond to issues of perceived major threats (Figure 2), accountability and access issues (Figure 3), equal opportunity issues (Figure 4), and systemic problems (Figure 5). Each of these content areas could be explored conceptually and qualitatively to assess whether some initial sense of a measured construct can be formed. If the by-person individual response data could be analyzed for fit to a proper measurement model, a much better job of determining the presence of invariant structure could be done.

But even without undertaking that work, these results already suggest a basis for productive conversations between the supposedly polarized groups. To start from the low-hanging fruit, the three problems the two groups agree on to within a couple of sampling errors (Figure 2) present topics of common agreement. Both Democrats and Republicans identify violent crime, the federal budget deficit, and drug addiction as matters of equally shared concern. The point is not that these are the highest rated problems for either group, but, rather, that they agree within the limits of statistical precision as to the extent that these are “very big” problems. It may be that setting shared priorities for addressing these problems could ground new relationships in that experience of having accomplished something productive together.

This new approach to building social capital might then proceed by taking up progressively more difficult areas of disagreement as to what “very big” problems are. Even though Republicans rate each area as less likely to be a “very big” problem, within each of the four groups of issues, they agree with Democrats as to their relative magnitudes. News like this might not sell a lot of ads, but it does offer hope for finding new ways of approaching relationships and crossing divides.

Fisher2018PewFig2

Figure 2.Republican vs Democrat areas of agreement as to “Very Big” problems

Fisher2018PewFig3

Figure 3 Republican vs Democrat areas of some disagreement as to “Very Big” problems

Fisher2018PewFig4

Figure 4 Republican vs Democrat areas of marked disagreement as to “Very Big” problems

Fisher2018PewFig5

Figure 5 Republican vs Democrat areas of fundamental disagreement as to “Very Big” problems

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Revisiting The Federalist Paper No. 31 by Alexander Hamilton: An Analogy from Geometry

July 10, 2018

[John Platt’s chapters on social chain reactions in his 1966 book, The Steps to Man, provoked my initial interest in looking into his work. That work appears to be an independent development of themes that appear in more well-known works by Tarde, Hayek, McLuhan, Latour, and others, which of course are of primary concern in thinking through metrological and ecosystem issues in psychological and social measurement. My interest also comes in the context of Platt’s supervision of Ben Wright in Robert Mulliken’s physics lab at the U of Chicago in 1948. However, other chapters in this book concern deeper issues of complexity and governance that cross yet more disciplinary boundaries. One of the chapters in the book, for instance, examines the Federalist Papers and remarks on a geometric analogy drawn by Alexander Hamilton concerning moral and political forms of knowledge. The parallel with my own thinking is such that I have restated Hamilton’s theme in my own words within the contemporary context. The following is my effort in this regard. No source citations are given, but a list of supporting references is included at bottom. Hamilton’s original text is available at: https://www.congress.gov/resources/display/content/The+Federalist+Papers#TheFederalistPapers-31.  ]

 

Communication requires that we rely on the shared understandings of a common language. Language puts in play combinations of words, concepts, and things that enable us to relate to one another at varying levels of complexity. Often, we need only to convey the facts of a situation in a simple denotative statement about something learned (“the cat is on the mat”). We also need to be able to think at a higher level of conceptual complexity referred to as metalinguistic, where we refer to words themselves and how we learn about what we’ve learned (“the word ‘cat’ has no fur”). At a third, metacommunicative, level of complexity, we make statements about statements, deriving theories of learning and judgments from repeated experiences of metalinguistic learning about learning (“I was joking when I said the cat was on the mat”).

Human reason moves freely between expressions of and representations of denotative facts, metalinguistic instruments like words, and metacommunicative theories. The combination of assurances obtained from the mutual supports each of these provides the others establishes the ground in which the seeds of social, political, and economic life take root and grow. Thought itself emerges from within the way the correspondence of things, words, and concepts precedes and informs the possibility of understanding and communication.

When understanding and communication fail, that failure may come about because of mistaken perceptions concerning the facts, a lack of vocabulary, or misconceptions colored by interests, passions, or prejudices, or some combination of these three.

The maxims of geometry exhibit exactly this same pattern combining concrete data on things in the world, instruments for abstract measurement, and formal theoretical concepts. Geometry is the primary and ancient example of how the beauty of aesthetic proportions teaches us to understand meaning. Contrary to common sense, which finds these kinds of discontinuities incomprehensible, philosophy since the time of Plato’s Symposium teaches how to make meaning in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences between the local facts of a situation and the principles to which we may feel obliged to adhere. Geometry meaningfully and usefully, for instance, represents the undrawable infinite divisibility of line segments, as with the irrational length of the hypotenuse of a right isosceles triangle that has the other two sides with lengths of 1.

This apparently absurd and counter-intuitive skipping over of the facts in the construction of the triangular figure and the summary reference to the unstateable infinity of the square root of two is so widely accepted as to provide a basis for real estate property rights that are defensible in courts of law and financially fungible. And in this everyday commonplace we have a model for separating and balancing denotative facts, instrumental words, and judicial theories in moral and political domains.

Humanity has proven far less tractable than geometry over the course of its history regarding possible sciences of morals and politics. This is understandable given humanity’s involvement in its own ongoing development. As Freud put it, humanity’s Narcissistic feeling of being the center of the universe, the crown of creation, and the master of its own mind has suffered a series of blows as it has had to come to terms with the works of Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud himself. The struggle to establish a common human identity while also celebrating individual uniqueness is an epic adventure involving billions of tragic and comedic stories of hubris, sacrifice, and accomplishment. Humanity has arrived at a point now, however, at which a certain obstinate, perverse, and disingenuous resistance to self-understanding has gone too far.

Although the mathematical sciences excel in refining the precision of their tools, longstanding but largely untapped resources for improving the meaningfulness and value of moral and political knowledge have been available for decades. “The obscurity is much oftener in the passions and prejudices of the reasoner than in the subject.” Methods for putting passions on the table for sorting out take advantage of the lessons beauty teaches about meaning and thereby support each of the three levels of complexity in communication.

At this point we encounter the special relevance of those three levels of complexity to the separation and balance of powers in government. The concrete denotative factuality of data is the concern of the executive branch, as befits its orientation to matters of practical application. The abstract metalinguistic instrumentation of words is the concern of the legislative branch, in accord with its focus on the enactment of laws and measures. And formal metacommunicative explanatory theories are the concern of the judicial branch, as is appropriate to its focus on constitutional issues.

For each of us to give our own individual understandings fair play in ways that do not give free rein to unfettered prejudices entangled in words and subtle confusions, we need to be able to communicate in terms that, so far as possible, function equally well within and across each of these levels of complexity. It is only to state the obvious to say that we lack the language needed for communication of this kind. Our moral and political sciences have not yet systematically focused on creating such languages. Outside of a few scattered works, they have not even yet consciously hypothesized the possibility of creating these languages. It is nonetheless demonstrably the case that these languages are feasible, viable, and desirable.

Though good will towards all and a desire to refrain so far as possible from overt exclusionary prejudices for or against one or another group cannot always be assumed, these are the conditions necessary for a social contract and are taken as the established basis for what follows. The choice between discourse and violence includes careful attention to avoiding the violence of the premature conclusion. If we are ever to achieve improved communication and a fuller realization of both individual liberties and social progress, the care we invest in supports for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness must flow from this deep source.

Given the discontinuities between language’s levels of complexity, avoiding premature conclusions means needing individualized uncertainty estimates and an associated tolerance for departures from expectations set up by established fact-word-concept associations. For example, we cannot allow a three-legged horse to alter our definition of horses as four-legged animals. Neither should we allow a careless error or lucky guess to lead to immediate and unqualified judgments of learning in education. Setting up the context in which individual data points can be understood and explained is the challenge we face. Information infrastructures supporting this kind of contextualization have been in development for years.

To meet the need for new communicative capacities, features of these information infrastructures will have to include individualized behavioral feedback mechanisms, minimal encroachments on private affairs, managability, modifiability, and opportunities for simultaneously enhancing one’s own interests and the greater good.

It is in this latter area that our interests are now especially focused. Our audacious but not implausible goal is to find ways of enhancing communication and the quality of information infrastructures by extending beauty’s lessons for meaning into new areas. In the same way that geometry facilitates leaps from concrete figures to abstract constructions and from there to formal ideals, so, too, must we learn, learn about that learning, and develop theories of learning in other less well materialized areas, such as student-centered education, and patient-centered health care. Doing so will set the stage for new classes of human, social, and natural capital property rights that are just as defensible in courts of law and financially fungible as real estate.

When that language is created, when those rights are assigned, and when that legal defensibility and financial fungibility are obtained, a new construction of government will follow. In it, the separation and balance of executive, legislative, and judicial powers will be applied with equal regularity and precision down to the within-individual micro level, as well as at the between-individual meso level, and at the social macro level. This distribution of freedom and responsibility across levels and domains will feed into new educational, market, health, and governmental institutions of markedly different character than we have at present.

A wide range of research publications appearing over the last several decades documents unfolding developments in this regard, and so those themes will not be repeated here. Some of these publications are listed below for those interested. Far more remains to be done in this area than has yet been accomplished, to say the least.

 

 

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