The not-so-serious academic crowds aren’t big on data, reason, or arguments. But they’re fond of accusations. One of their favorite rhetorical tools is to say, “Oh, you just think that because you’re white, or a male, or whatnot.”
Introductory critical reasoning textbooks might call that an ad hominem fallacy. And no doubt many in the not-so-serious disciplines haven’t learned elementary critical reasoning. (Indeed, it’s rumored that Copi, Cohen, and McMahan’s textbook burns postmodernists’ skin the same way holy water burns vampires.)
But, not so fast. It’s at least possible that such claims–e.g., “You’re into free markets because you’re white”–are true. If we’re serious people, we’d want to test such claims, using proper social scientific methods.
How might we do that? Well, looking at one individual person, we can’t know what causes what. I’m from New England and I like heavy metal. Do I like heavy metal because I’m from New England? Too little data: there’s no statistically significant regression line to be drawn here.
But suppose we have lots of data. Suppose we collect the following bits of information for tens of thousands of individuals:
1. Who they are (i.e., their demographic data)
2. What they want (e.g., what political policies they advocate or prefer, or what political and economic theories they believe)
3. What they know (e.g., what empirically verifiable political knowledge they have)
Once we do that, we can use statistics to determine how demographic factors influence political preferences, while controlling for the effects of information. Similarly, we can use statistics to determine how information affects their political preferences, while controlling for the effects of demographics. Indeed, we can even statistically simulate what people would prefer if their demographics stayed the same, but they were perfectly informed or perfectly uninformed.
In fact, many researchers have done just that. See, e.g., Scott Althaus, Bryan Caplan, and, to a lesser extent, Martin Gilens, among others. I summarize some of these findings Compulsory Voting: For and Against:
Well-informed and badly informed citizens also have systematically different policy preferences. As people (regardless of their race, income, gender, or other demographic factors) become more informed, they favor less government intervention and control of the economy. They are more in favor of free trade and less in favor of protectionism. They are more pro-choice. They favor using tax increases to offset the deficit and debt. They favor less punitive and harsh measures on crime. They are less hawkish on military policy, though they favor other forms of intervention. They are more accepting of affirmative action. They are less supportive of prayer in public schools. They are more supportive of market solutions to health care problems. They are less moralistic in law; they don’t want government to impose morality on the population. And so on. In contrast, as people become less informed, they become more in favor of protectionism, abortion restrictions, harsh penalties on crime, doing nothing to fix the debt, more hawkish intervention, and so on. (Remember: these effects are not due to differing demographics between low and high information voters.)
Further, this holds even inside single political parties:
Democrats are not united in their moral and political outlooks. High information Democrats have systematically different policy preferences from low information Democrats. Rich and poor Democrats have systematically different policy preferences. Compulsory voting gets more poor Democrats to the polls. But poor Democrats tend to be low information, while affluent Democrats tend to be high information voters. The poor more approved more strongly of invading Iraq in 2003. They more strongly favor the Patriot Act, invasions of civil liberty, torture, protectionism, and of restricting abortion rights and access to birth control. They are less tolerant of homosexuals and more opposed to gay rights. In general, compared to the rich, the poor—including poor Democrats—are intolerant, economically innumerate, hawkish bigots.
So, suppose someone claims that support for free markets is nothing more than a reflection of whiteness or maleness. A person making such assertions intends to undermine or debunk pro-market attitudes. But, oops, that doesn’t work, because science! These assertions–“You think that because you’re white and male”–are not only testable, but have been tested, and falsified.