Wrong ways to think about elections (slightly updated)

I tried to avoid instant reactions to the election outcome in May. But now that lots of people are making claims I regard as dubious at best, I think I may respond. Before doing that, I thought it would be useful to make some general observations about mistaken/dubious claims that are commonly made in post election analysis, particularly following a close election.

Just about everyone, including me, is prone to these kinds of reasoning. Feel free to discuss, give examples, and so on.

Update: Much of what I planned to write has been covered, much better, by Peter Brent at Inside Story.

  1. The winning party/leader has demonstrated a deep understanding of the electorate, unlike the losers
    At least when the margin of victory is narrow, this is magical thinking. If one or two voters in a hundred had decided differently, the opposite claim would be made with equal confidence.
  2. Factor X was the (implicitly unique) cause of the outcome. As in a close sporting match, every missed shot and every bad call is as crucial as every other. So, there’s no necessary inconsistency between the claims that “we lost because of media bias”, “we lost because of policy X” and “we lost because the leader was unpopular”. Plausibly, each cause was changing any of these factors would have been sufficient (other things equal), and, conversely, none was necessary essential. (There’s an opposite version of the fallacy. If someone says “policy X cost us votes”, a supporter of X may deny it and say “we would have won with a better leader”. As I’ve said, both can be true).
  3. There were big swings in electorates with many voters of Type X. Therefore these voters changed sides.
    This one even has a name, the “ecological fallacy“. To give the classic example, the fact that electorates with a low average income changed hands, does not mean that low income voters necessarily changed sides.
  4. The outcome proves we should do X, where X is something the speaker has been advocating all along.
    Essentially, this is the same as 2, though usually with less evidence that not doing X changed the result.

67 thoughts on “Wrong ways to think about elections (slightly updated)

  1. J_D, in short no. Political choices, like most choices in life, aren’t about “flipping coins”.

    The fact that only one Liberal leader in the last five has supported same-sex marriage is clearly not the result of “chance”. How do we know this with certainty? Because they’ve told us so in their own words, and because their party’s position on the issue couldn’t have been more explicit.

    It would be decidedly unlikely then, if they’re not choosing to attend gay pride parades was in any way a result of “chance”…

    Similarly, for female Prime Ministers. They didn’t reach the position of being in contention of being elected as Prime Minster in the first place as a result of “chance”. I would argue they reached that position in the first place – and were then successfully elected – because of the very different cultural and historical circumstances that exist in New Zealand compared to Australia.

    Politicians and the society that elects them aren’t disconnected. Societies produce the politicians they then elect to govern them. ie. there is no ‘Pauline Hanson’ without the society that produces a ‘Pauline Hanson’.

    I posed you a question earlier asking why it is that white New Zealand males have less of a need to seek alpha male status. Any thoughts yet on this, and why the answer might suggest a more likely reason why New Zealand has had predominantly female leaders in the last couple of decades, compared to mere “chance”?

  2. The fact that only one Liberal leader in the last five has supported same-sex marriage is clearly not the result of “chance”. How do we know this with certainty? Because they’ve told us so in their own words, and because their party’s position on the issue couldn’t have been more explicit.

    Citation needed.

    Similarly, for female Prime Ministers. They didn’t reach the position of being in contention of being elected as Prime Minster in the first place as a result of “chance”. I would argue they reached that position in the first place – and were then successfully elected – because of the very different cultural and historical circumstances that exist in New Zealand compared to Australia.

    The broader context includes the direct evidence of unequal legal status historically and/or currently around the world. It also includes the accumulation of research evidence of various forms of less explicit bias against women and the associated accumulation of statistical evidence that women are under-represented in a wide range of positions of high status, prestige, and/or power. In that broader context, it’s obviously not by chance that Prime Ministers have far more often been men than women, in Australia, in New Zealand, and in other countries: it’s because of a long entrenched pattern of bias against women, varying in its manifestations over time but never absent.

    It’s within that context that the evidence of fewer women having been Prime Minister in Australia than in New Zealand is insufficient to establish the conclusion that bias against women is stronger than in New Zealand, just as the evidence of fewer women having been Prime Minister in Canada than in the United Kingdom is insufficient to establish the conclusion that bias against women is stronger than in the UK.

    Turn it around: suppose somebody wanted to conduct research to determine which of two countries to be named later is more affected by bias against women. Would it be sufficient to count how many women Prime Ministers each of those two countries had had? No, it would not.

  3. J-D

    Citation SIGH-tation thread de-rail citation.

    This is a blog, NOT a professors review of a phd student.

    ABC prepoll tool below is NOT a citation, it is intention and uncontested fact with an interactive tool to assist you. WITH ERRATA AND UPDATE.

    Do you J-D still have access to journals at your uni? If so citation WANTED.

    “Australia has said Yes, so how will your MP vote on a same-sex marriage bill in Parliament?

    “We asked if you were happy with how your MP intends to vote if a same-sex marriage bill is put before Parliament.

    Who will vote for what
    SORT BY
    Electorate / MP

    How they would vote

    https://abc.net.au/news/2017-11-14/same-sex-marriage-if-the-survey-says-yes-how-will-your-mp-vote/9104112

    “Prior to legalisation, 22 same-sex marriage related bills were introduced to Parliament between September 2004 and May 2017, none of which passed into law. These failed attempts came after the Howard Governmentamended the law in August 2004 to exclude same-sex marriages. ”
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Same-sex_marriage_in_Australia

    https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1718/Quick_Guides/SSMarriageBills

    Wikipedian Protester
    https://xkcd.com/285/

    Note in this cartoon the protester is in the audience.

    J-D , do the phd for your citation needed or comment generously. Please. Asking a commenter who has a good faith opinion of supportive leaders and offers it to you a least twice with clarification is in my un cited opinion a call from a judge in a trial.

    Professor to student – try less brick wall-y next time.

    Brick-y = Sigh-tation needed.

  4. KT2

    My use of ‘Australians’ was I guess to point out to the fact that there is a large group of people, living in a country called Australia, with members of this group known as ‘Australians’. I was thinking of people old enough to vote.
    Everyone seemed to think about differences between the members, I wanted to point out to the fact that we could look at the group from the outside (for example by comparing it with other such groups, ignoring ‘minor’ differences, and concentrating on things that are common to all of its members).
    Having an opinion on Aus Labor/Liberal parties seems common to us all. We all shop mostly at Coles or Woolworths. We all know who John Howard is. We all have a Medicare card. And so on.

    Labor cannot be seen as a very ‘different’ party exactly, compared to the Liberal party, if not within the Australian context. From an outsider’s point of view, there is very little difference (neither is really wanting to change the country, or to transform it, but largely to manage the staus quo (remember what happend to Kevin Rudd?)

  5. And each group has its way of going about this. They take turns, as needed I guess, as determined by the australian people.

  6. And we know by now that those with money and power influence the vote, for example. People who are ‘influenced’ by those with money and power are most likely unaware of it. The Labor can’t fix it unless the masses want it fixed. And the masses don’t really realise that something major needs to be fixed.
    Or the risk of any such ‘radical’ change outweighs any potential benefit, at least for now. Or maybe there us nothing to fix, and we are all deluded on this blog.

  7. J-D, I am not the person claiming that Australia is more politically sexist than NZ (although I think it probably is*). I was talking on the basis of my experience and observation in politics. If you want to know what that is, I was a researcher/adviser in Vic Labor for two years 1997-99, and stood (unsuccessfully) for preselection. I also made an equal opportunity complaint against the Vic Labor Parliamentary Opposition in 1999, although it was eventually settled as a wrongful dismissal (before hearing).

    After I left Labor in 2001, I was a convenor of the Vic Greens Women’s Network and the Greens national Health policy working group. I stood as a candidate for the Greens in the 2002 Vic State election (in the former Province of Eumemmering) and got a pretty good result. If you want ‘citation’ I can provide it for most of that, although the Eumemmering results you can look up for yourself.

    As it happens, I also worked with Julia Gillard and Alex Bhathal, two high profile women who got pretty badly treated by their own parties. All in all, I think I have a pretty good understanding of how sexism and patriarchy work in Australian politics. Evidence based on observation and experience isn’t ‘statistical evidence’ but it’s still evidence.

  8. J_D: “Citation needed.”

    If you have a problem with that claim, you can state what it is and make your own counter-claim. FWIW, I have no doubt that Brendan Nelson personally supported same-sex marriage, but as I said earlier, it certainly wasn’t politically expedient for him to declare that support publicly. Turnbull was the only Liberal leader to do so. If you think that statement is wrong, prove it.

    J_D: “Would it be sufficient to count how many women Prime Ministers each of those two countries had had?”

    Of course not, and I never claimed this. There are many other measures we might look to, and as Val says, not the least of which is the degree of respect those women were given by other politicians and the broader public once they attained office.

    Show us evidence of high-rating mainstream NZ radio presenters claiming a female New Zealand Prime Minister should be “put into a chaff bag and thrown out to sea”

    Show us evidence of crowds of New Zealanders holding “ditch the witch” and “Bob Brown’s bitch” signs and cheering in response to a nationally famous musician calling her a “female dog”.

    Show us evidence that a Tony Abbott or Peter Dutton equivalent has existed in NZ politics at any time in recent decades.

  9. Val

    Evidence based on observation and experience isn’t ‘statistical evidence’ but it’s still evidence.

    I agree, absolutely. I am not sure whether you think we are in disagreement about something and if so I can’t guess what it is.

    Nick

    J_D: “Citation needed.”

    If you have a problem with that claim, you can state what it is

    I have. My problem is the absence of a citation.

    J_D: “Would it be sufficient to count how many women Prime Ministers each of those two countries had had?”

    Of course not, and I never claimed this.

    If you wanted to investigate which of two countries to be named later is more affected by bias against women, then counting the number of women Prime Ministers each of them has had would be only one of many conceivable ineffective research strategies. Another ineffective research strategy would be questioning blog commenters from one of those countries about the extent of their knowledge of the politics of the other.

  10. John Howard

    Changing the definition of marriage, which has lasted for time immemorial, is not an exercise in human rights and equality; it is an exercise in de-authorising the Judaeo-Christian influence in our society, and any who pretend otherwise are deluding themselves.

    Brendan Nelson

    In giving our in-principle support to this legislation, I make it very clear what the opposition is not supporting. We do not and will not support any change to or devaluation of the traditional status of marriage as the foundation, indeed the bedrock, of our society. […] It is a relationship which by its very nature can only exist between people of opposite sexes, and it remains the surest and most stable relationship for the nurture and upbringing of children.

    Malcolm Turnbull

    Were, however, a free vote to be permitted I would support legislation which recognised same-sex couples as being described as in a marriage.

    Tony Abbott

    I remain stubbornly of the traditional view

    Scott Morrison

    My view is, look I am voting no, it is ok to say no and people should know that.

  11. Challenging your ignorance of New Zealand politics was not a “research strategy” as you falsely hypothesised. It was an attempt to show that Australia and New Zealand have very different political cultures, and that it is decidedly unlikely that “flipping a coin 5 times” is the reason New Zealand has had predominantly female Prime Ministers in the last two decades.

    Next time you speak to someone from New Zealand, you should ask them about their widely celebrated progressive milestones, and what they make of your “possibility it’s all just random chance” theory and how “there’s no real way of knowing”. I’d be really intrigued to hear how they respond.

  12. Nick good on your for trying.

    J-D, I share you’re problem now. “My problem is the absence of a citation” Agreed.

    Yet  you’ve gone from
    IF > THEN > NOT
    to
    IF THEN ELSE double negative;

    ” … one of many conceivable ineffective research strategies. Another ineffective research strategy …”
    Negative. And you also said “No, it would not.” Do you understand your negation J-D. Citation for your absolute negatives please. But none exist. I could almost say younarenahouting at claim clouds.

    I now (Nick Val?), think a citation which you want, is not readily available. And considering the words written on navel gazing the election outcome, providing a specific citation for Nick’s claim would still be argued over, and you’d still be asking for more citations. 

    I could not find such. Just data.

    You seem fluent at spotting logic and theory flaws. You come back with worthy negative responses. AND sensible suggestions as to how to NOT go about applying “many conceivable research strategies”.

    I am now am hoping, for the double positive, from you. Such as;

    “Of of many conceivable effective research strategies … is …

    “Another effective research strategy would be…”

    Followed by … a personally situated relevant lecture. Id bet you have a personal opinion / experience busting to inform us.

    As is the nature of a blog imo, is opposed to a dissertation.

    I’m reacting to your negativity, not your occasional content, cited or not!

    Positive -cited or not – input pleasenJ-D

    Sigh (tation)…

  13. Nick

    You quote five different Liberal leaders saying different things, not all saying the same thing. That confirms (to varying degrees of specificity) their individual positions, but where’s the statement by the party of the party’s position?

    Challenging your ignorance of New Zealand politics was not a “research strategy” as you falsely hypothesised. It was an attempt to show that Australia and New Zealand have very different political cultures

    If I wanted to discover the extent of the difference between the political cultures of two countries to be named later, or to determine the nature of the specific differences, then I would not proceed by asking blog commenters from one of those countries questions about the other, because I know already that no matter what the answers I get, they would demonstrate nothing about the point at issue. I can’t think of any good reason why you would imagine differently.

  14. J-D… “that no matter what the answers I get, they would demonstrate nothing about the point at issue.”

    Except a persons genuinely held belief opinion or claim. Isn’t this attitude the reason claimed for Labor losing? Citation please!

    You’ll not convince J-D Nick.

    Run some evolutionary game-theory simulations and cite results;
    “thinks that just the opposite is true. Because evolution selects for survival, not accuracy, he proposes that our conscious experience masks reality behind millennia of adaptions for ‘fitness payoffs’ – an argument supported by his work running evolutionary game-theory simulations.”
    https://aeon.co/videos/its-impossible-to-see-the-world-as-it-is-argues-a-cognitive-neuroscientist

    Still waiting J-D for “the double positive, from you. Such as;

    “Of of many conceivable effective research strategies … is …

    “Another effective research strategy would be…”

    Followed by … a personally situated relevant lecture. Id bet you have a personal opinion / experience busting to inform us.”

    Just a sigh now.

  15. “where’s the statement by the party of the party’s position”

    J_D, Brendan Nelson was very clearly stating the Liberal Party’s position. I’m not sure how you managed to interpret his house debate speech otherwise.

    If you read Malcolm Turnbull’s speech, he was also quite clearly stating the Liberal Party’s position versus his own position. There was no free vote allowed on same-sex marriage by the Liberal Party. All members were required to vote against it.

    Re “the differences”, I’m not trying to discover them, I’m well aware they exist. I was trying to persuade you of their existence through a fairly crude form of rhetorical socratic questioning that parodied your own repeated requests for evidence. I’m not sure why you keep insisting that was a “research strategy”.

    But yeah, in any case, I don’t think I can persuade you, and I think at this point we should agree to disagree. It’s been enjoyable trying though, and thanks for stimulating me to think more deeply about these issues than I would have otherwise. I will continue to think about them.

    KT2, thanks for encouragement.

  16. Re “the differences”, I’m not trying to discover them, I’m well aware they exist. I was trying to persuade you of their existence …

    You don’t need to persuade me that there are differences between Australian political culture and New Zealand political culture: that’s the kind of thing I expect to be true by default. If you want to persuade me of a specific conclusion about the nature of those differences, then what you need to do is to indicate to me the evidence which is the basis for that conclusion. Just for example, if the evidence (or part of it) is supposed to be that there are lots of people like Peter Dutton in Australian politics and few or none in New Zealand politics, you could indicate who the other Australian politicians are who resemble Peter Dutton (and how they resemble him) and what sort of check you made to confirm that there are few or none of the same type in New Zealand politics.

    (If the evidence (or part of it) is supposed to be that there is one Peter Dutton in Australian politics and none in New Zealand politics, then a single Peter Dutton is insufficient basis for conclusions about characteristics of a whole country’s political culture.)

  17. In this case – Implausible Citation Needed!

    Worse, it is the AEC, with ‘implausible’.

    I heard on abc rn, an Australian born person who’s parents read chinese language newspaper with serious misinformation in Chisholm. In that electorate. It is not implausable in Lui’s seat.

    Chisholm Electors – 106,362 (2019) so less than 1%. I’d say the AEC needs to be defending every vote. How do we have the AEC change ‘implauaible’ to ‘within the error bound”? And provide a citation!

    “The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has told a court it is “implausible” that purple Chinese-language placards put up by the Liberal Party drastically affected the federal election result in Victoria.”
    https://abc.net.au/news/2019-11-07/aec-dismisses-claims-chinese-language-signs-influenced-election/11681840

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