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Not Lake Wobegon

February 14th, 2012

I haven’t been paying much attention to the Oz since it went behind the paywall, but I happened to pick up a copy of today’s paper edition, and came across a fascinating piece by Christian Kerr (who, IIRC, used to write for Crikey as “Hillary Bray”). Trying to talk up public opposition to equal marriage as a reason for Labor hesitancy to push hard on the issue, he cites a survey showing that around 25 per cent of Australians agree with the proposition homosexuality is immoral. Conscious that 25 per cent is, well, a minority, he decides to look at individual electorates.

What’s really striking is Kerr’s discovery that ‘In 80 of the 150 federal electorates, an above-average number of people support the proposition’. I did some quick math of my own, and it turns out that 80 is almost exactly half of 150. So, next time you see a sample estimate that doesn’t suit your case, be sure to check subsamples. You, too, may find that half of them are above the average.

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  1. David Barry
    February 14th, 2012 at 12:06 | #1

    The data is from Roy Morgan’s Single Source, which aggregates their weekly surveys over a period of a year or more. I’m not sure if this is the survey Kerr is referring to (it was reported in late 2010, so there’s probably more recent data somewhere), but it has n=130,000 over January 2008-June 2010. http://images.brisbanetimes.com.au/file/2010/11/15/2045177/immoral.pdf

    Thanks for this, David. I’ve edited the post to remove the remark about electorate-level sample sizes, which is resolved by the info you’ve provided

  2. PM
    February 14th, 2012 at 12:51 | #2

    A little off topic but I’ve recently noticed people on the street in Brisbane’s CBD handing out vouchers that will give you free access to the online version of The Australian for a week or month or so.

    I was curious so I had a quick chat to a few people trying to give them away and all of them told me that no one is interested at all.

    Quite heartening really.

  3. Sam
    February 14th, 2012 at 13:12 | #3

    I’d be very interested to see what has happened to total readership (online plus offline) post paywall.

  4. Fran Barlow
    February 14th, 2012 at 17:59 | #4

    I suppose the claim might concern not whether most support or oppose gay marriage but whether the net gain of votes associated with the policy in winnable seats would exceed net losses. That’s a more complex calculus. If LNP voters in marginal seats support the policy but won’t vote ALP on that basis, they don’t count. Equally, if people already intending to vote ALP in marginal seats support it, they don’t count either. Conversely, if a handful of ALP voters are willing to switch sides to vote LNP on that basis …

  5. Ikonoclast
    February 14th, 2012 at 20:01 | #5

    I support equal rights for gay people, including gay marriage. At the same time, I want to ask, a little archly, why do gay people want to repeat all the foolish mistakes of straight people (or bi people who contract a straight marriage) ie. marriage, mortgage, children and all the self-entrapment that entails?

    One day I was walking through a park up to Wickam Terrace to see a specialist. I saw a young couple kissing in the park and felt tempted to offer the young bloke a bit of advice; “Don’t do it mate, it only leads to children.”

    On the pedestrian crossing, a person coming the other way was wearing a t-shirt showing a marrying couple at the altar, in block graphics format, and captioned “Game Over”, bride smiling and bridegroom with a look of dawning concern on his face.

    Then to prove that the world mysteriously tells us things in threes, the rather wry, older specialist I visited percipiently said, almost out of the blue; “Once you’ve fathered the children and payed for their upkeep and education, your usefulness is over buster.”

    I’m pulling your legs… a bit.

  6. February 14th, 2012 at 23:34 | #6

    Pr Q said:

    So, next time you see a sample estimate that doesn’t suit your case, be sure to check subsamples. You, too, may find that half of them are above the average.

    Fran Barlow @ #4 commented:

    Conversely, if a handful of ALP voters are willing to switch sides to vote LNP on that basis …

    For once Fran Barlow gets it right, and indeed shows Pr Q a clean pair of heels. The fact that more than half of the sampled electorates reported 25%+ support for the proposition that “homosexuality is immoral” is a very interesting fact, both politically and ideologically.

    I am surprised that Pr Q is having a crack at Kerr given that he of all statisticians would heed the wisdom of the old saying “weigh, don’t count”. Kerr is right, even if arithmetically tautological, in pointing out the political risks of poking the hornets nest of gay marriage when more than half the electorates contain a large minority of voters who are resolutely opposed to legitimizing gay unions.

    The fervently anti-gay group could easily be galvanized into swinging voters in marginal electorates. Especially the (possibly large) fraction of that sample who would fall into the “conservative ALP” category. That turn-around could deliver a sizeable swag of seats to the L/NP for a very small investment in political capital.

    So Gillard’s political instincts to side-step this unnecessary and unprofitable battle, in the run-up to the most closely fought and consequential election since the end of the Cold War, are sound.

    Ideologically I am not surprised by the intensity of the opposition to gay marriage in significant parts of the community. It certainly rains on the post-modern liberal parade if nearly one in three citizens feel that gays not only do not deserve equal civil rights, but are in fact bad people.

    Most of the majority who support gay marriage (including me) are pretty luke-warm about the whole idea. A small vocal minority (who happen to have a lock on the media-academia bullhorn) care passionately about it. And a larger “silent minority” are obviously disgusted with it.

    And this might be a good moment to dredge up another old saw from statistics courses: the “halo effect”. I wonder how many people who stood on the fence in order to appear nice in the polite company of a pollster in fact secretly harboured politically incorrect sympathies. Going by the prevalence of the jeer “that is so gay” my guess is not a few.

    I understand that Pr Q has a set against The Australian and I see where he is coming from. But he has so many bees in his bonnet these days he might consider taking deliberate aimed shots at a few key targets rather than wasting ammo by spraying bursts wildly at the swarm.

  7. John Quiggin
    February 15th, 2012 at 08:56 | #7

    @Fran and JS. Reread the post (and Google the title if necessary). You’ve missed the point, comprehensively in Jack’s case.

  8. JB Cairns
    February 15th, 2012 at 08:57 | #8

    Yes indeed

  9. Ikonoclast
    February 15th, 2012 at 09:04 | #9

    Reminds me of an old joke. When people migrate from another state to Qld they raise the average IQ of both states.

  10. James Haughton
    February 15th, 2012 at 10:31 | #10

    Given that in Lake Wobegon, all the women are strong and all the men are good looking, I’d expect that there’d be quite a high vote in favour of gay marriage there. (ducks)

  11. February 15th, 2012 at 10:31 | #11


    On/off the same point: Last year fancy stands appeared in some CBD foyers giving away the Oz for free. On several occasions in the early evening I saw the still almost full piles sitting there.

    Heartening indeed.

    PS a friend refers to the Oz in Qld as “the Courier-Mail for people who think they’re smart”.

  12. rog
    February 15th, 2012 at 10:47 | #12

    Regarding the “proposition”, if the average is 25% then 80 electorates are above 25% and 70 are below 25%. Hardly a win.

  13. Ikonoclast
    February 15th, 2012 at 13:58 | #13

    I prefer to think of the OZ as “not even good chip wrapper.”

  14. John Goss
    February 15th, 2012 at 15:12 | #14

    I do like the fact that John Quiggin has a classication category of ‘boneheaded stupidity’. Christian’s article fits right in. But we should be grateful that he provides the fodder so John can make us laugh. Almost as good as First Dog.

  15. Fran Barlow
    February 15th, 2012 at 15:46 | #15

    @John Quiggin

    @Fran and JS. Reread the post (and Google the title if necessary). You’ve missed the point,

    I see. So this is really just a swing at Kerr’s not as impressive as it looks mathematical reasoning (80/150 have above average levels of agreement with the proposition), rather than his political reasoning?

  16. Sam
    February 15th, 2012 at 16:35 | #16

    Slight mathematical pedantry here, but it’s not necessary for exactly half the sample to be above average. The median and mean only have to coincide if the distribution is even. In the case of support for gay marriage, it’s not obvious this should be true. For one thing, we might expect a bimodal scheme of two superimposed normals; one curve for Catholics and evangelicals, and one for the the rest.

  17. rog
    February 15th, 2012 at 16:48 | #17

    It doesn’t matter how many are above the average, the average is only 25%.

  18. Jill Rush
    February 15th, 2012 at 18:04 | #18

    If government departments and public servants didn’t read the Oz it would have only the rightist of right wingers as readers. since going behind the pay wall it has had varying numbers of articles behind the pay wall. It remains Rupert’s folly.

    The reason that Labor is so ambivalent about Gay marriage is that few people who aren’t gay will change their vote if it doesn’t happen whereas plenty of fundamentalists will. the real impediment is the Liberal Party.

  19. February 15th, 2012 at 21:13 | #19

    Pr Q @ #7 said:

    You’ve missed the point, comprehensively in Jack’s case.

    The “point” of this post barely rises to a snark and I haven’t missed it (hence my reference to Kerr’s “arithmetically tautological” confusions). I get that Kerr is conflating (perhaps unconsciously or ignorantly) the (strongly) anti-gay minority of the sub-sample with the (weakly) pro-gay majority of the whole sample, in order to bolster his case for justifying Gillard’s supposed timidity. Obviously its possible to slice and dice a bundle of data any which way you can in order to extract a convenient conclusion.

    It doesn’t matter in this case since the plain facts are strong enough to justify his apologetic for Gillard. An intensely committed minority can swing an election perhaps more easily than an a weakly engaged majority. Believing that “homosexuality is immoral” is certainly dogmatic and the sort of “hot button” that might swing a vote if pushed by a ruthless opportunist like Abbott. Hence my reference to “weighing, not counting” when assessing the game-changing potential of swinging voters in marginal electorates.

    I also suspect that latent anti-gay feelings are stronger in the community that pollsters earnest questions would lead us to believe. The media-academia complex are without peer at spinning webs of politically correct delusion only to find the whole thing coming unstuck with periodic right-wing backlashes.

    So why should Gillard take a big risk on an issue of tenth-rate significance to the vast majority when the stakes for this election could not be higher. The parties have diverged dramatically ever since the astounding success of Minchin’s Martyrdom Operation in toppling the Tower of Turnbull. If the ALP lose the next election it will put back the cause of progressive Left by a decade.

    Is that what we really want or will we be forever searching for the pot of fools gold at the other end of “rainbow Labor”?

    PS Duning-Kruger is more my cup of tea than Lake Woebegone effect.

  20. rog
    February 15th, 2012 at 21:35 | #20

    According to Roy Morgan

    When Australians were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement “I believe homosexuality is immoral” just over a third (36%) said they agree but a clear majority (59%) said they disagree with the statement. The remainder (5%) were undecided.

    So the counter argument applies, a more significant majority do not support the proposition. This appears to have been lost to Gillard/Abbott which might explain why both are unable to gain a clear majority of support in the polls and why they are both almost equally unpopular.

  21. NickR
    February 15th, 2012 at 21:37 | #21

    Perhaps as 80/150 are above average this would indicate that opposition to homosexuality is a little broader than it is deep.

    As our political system is based upon electorates, broad support can be more powerful than deep suppport, so maybe the power of this awful minority is (very) slightly understated.

  22. February 16th, 2012 at 03:48 | #22

    Rog @ #21 said:

    So the counter argument applies, a more significant majority do not support the proposition. This appears to have been lost to Gillard/Abbott which might explain why both are unable to gain a clear majority of support in the polls and why they are both almost equally unpopular.

    A more elegant reductio ad absurdum it would be harder to imagine.

    The “counter argumen”t only “applies” if a “more significant majority…support the proposition” that “homosexuality is moral”, indeed praiseworthy and should be encouraged by support for gay marriage and so on. That is, if the majority are as pro-gay as the minority are anti-gay.

    But they don’t feel that strongly so they don’t have comparable political weight.

    My guess is that 25% are strongly anti-gay, 25% are strongly pro-gay and the balance are weakly pro-gay, indifferent, ignorant etc. More over the strongly pro-gay minority are not going to change their preferences if they don’t get their way. Whilst some unknown number in the strongly anti-gay minority could well re-direct their preference towards the L/NP if the ALP went out on a limb.

    Weigh, don’t count.

    The idea that Gillard and Abbott are personally unpopular because they won’t cave in to the pro-gay majority is laughable. Rudd is probably more anti-gay than Gillard-Abbott yet he is more popular than both of them.

  23. rog
    February 16th, 2012 at 05:43 | #23

    @Jack Strocchi Your “guesses” are a Gallaxy away from the current mood.

  24. Dan
    February 16th, 2012 at 08:44 | #24

    Where do you get this stuff, Jack?

    ‘Rudd is probably more anti-gay than Gillard-Abbott yet he is more popular than both of them.’ Gillard, split the difference. But Abbott!?

    What about the significant number (myself included), possibly a majority, who are not particularly invested in the issue but recognise the basic equal right of everyone to live their life in the family configuration they wish?

  25. Ron E Joggles
    February 16th, 2012 at 10:00 | #25

    @Ikonoclast I don’t understand why people get so het up about the “sanctity of marriage.” My definition of marriage is 2 adults living together in a loving relationship which they consider permanent. In Aboriginal society, traditionally, a man and a woman could announce their union by simply making 2 camp fires and sitting down together between them. I think we should demythologize marriage across the board and remove all these disparaging distinctions between formal marriage and the various forms of de-facto marriage.

  26. John Brookes
    February 17th, 2012 at 23:25 | #26

    I was addicted to the Oz’s puzzle page, but then I decided to stop giving Rupert money and move to the West Australian. They’ve got a better sports section as well.

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