Sunday, October 31, 2010

Elitism, part 1

Elitism is in the news these days (there's a story in today's New York Times called "Elitism: The Charge Obama Can’t Shake", and it has 316 reader comments as I write this). A few years ago, I looked for survey questions on the topic, and to my surprise, found very few.  There was one interesting survey, and I'm going to do a post on it in a few days, but in checking for more recent questions I found one that deserves an entry by itself.

This was in June 2004--a Pew survey asked:  "Does the phrase...'he is a wealthy elitist' better describe John Kerry, George W. Bush or don't you think it describes either of them"  20% said Kerry, 27% said Bush, 25% said neither, 14% volunteered that it described both of them, and 15% weren't sure.  Almost everyone who commented on the 2004 election said that one of Kerry's biggest problem was that he came across as aloof and elitist,  while Bush somehow managed to seem like a regular guy despite his wealth and background.  But it seems like more ordinary voters actually saw Bush as the elitist.  True, this survey was taken early in the campaign, and maybe more people came to see Kerry as a wealthy elitist as the campaign went on.   But people knew Bush well by this time, so why didn't he do better?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

There ain't half been some clever bastards

In 1952, a Gallup Poll asked people if they could identify some famous people (the questions were introduced as things that "might be on a radio quiz program").  Answers that said what a person did were counted as correct, and those that just gave his nationality were counted as "approximately correct."  In 1975, a Gallup poll asked respondents to identify the same people.  This time, the answers were just counted as correct or incorrect, and they didn't explain what it took to be correct.  So I give two figures for 1952--the first just counts correct and the second includes approximately correct.  The results:
              1952    1975
Beethoven    62 63    84
Raphael      30 30    35
Tolstoy      17 23    29
Freud        16 21    47
Aristotle    25 33    44
Rubens       15 15    24
Shakespeare  78 80    89
Gutenberg    17 24    24
Karl Marx    26 32    41
Napoleon     57 66    58
Columbus     88 89    92

Regardless of how you count the "approximate" answers, there were gains from 1952 to 1975, and in some cases big gains (e. g., Freud).  In a way, that's not surprising, since levels of formal education increased over that time.  But levels of political knowledge (things like ability to name public officials or knowing which party controlled Congress) haven't changed much since about 1950.  So the good news is that people were learning something during the 1960s and 1970s.  

As is often the case, the question hasn't been asked recently.  There are a lot more surveys than there used to be, but they tend to focus more heavily on politics.  I'd gladly sacrifice a few more questions on whether you approve of the job Congress is doing for a repeat of this one. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Post-racial society, 1949

A Gallup Poll in 1949 contained the question "Scientists are reported to be working on a drug that may be able to turn colored skins white. If such a drug were developed, people with colored skins who wanted to could turn (bleach) their skins white. Do you think this would be a good thing or a bad thing?" I don't know whether there really was talk of something like this at the time or whether it was just something they made up. In any case, 11% said it would be a good thing, 77% a bad thing, and the rest weren't sure.
  • Who was in favor? The survey asked about vote in the 1948 Presidential election. The two major party candidates, Truman (D) and Dewey (R), were both pretty progressive on civil rights by the standards of the time. There were also two minor-party candidates. On the left, there was Henry Wallace, who was a strong supporter of civil rights. On the right there was Strom Thurmond, the Governor of South Carolina, running under the States' Rights (Dixiecrat) party, which was about preserving segregation (this was the same Strom Thurmond who later was elected to the Senate, switched to the Republicans and served in the Senate until 2003).

  • 11% of Truman's voters thought the drug would be a good idea. Opinions among Dewey's supporters were just about the same, also at 11%. But 28% of Wallace's supporters thought it would be a good idea, compared to 0% of Thurmond's. None of Thurmond's supporters were undecided, either: 100% thought it would be a bad idea. There were only 40 Thurmond voters in the data set, but it's still pretty unusual to get unanimity in a group of that size. White southerners as a whole were strongly opposed, with 4% saying it would be a good idea and 6% unsure.

  • So basically, it seems like people with progressive views were more favorable. (That's also true if you compare using some other variables related to political outlook). Blacks, however, were not favorable--only 10% thought it would be a good idea, with 7% not sure.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

This is the saddest story I have ever heard

Well, not really, but maybe the saddest story involving survey research. A few years ago I was looking at the questionnaires from Gallup Polls of the early 1950s, and saw one with a question that went something like "Suppose that all laws were repealed for one day--what would you do?" The sad part--the words "not punched" were written across the question. That means the answers weren't recorded in the data set (which at that time involved punching holes in cards), and are lost forever.

Why didn't they record them? One possibility is that it would have been extra work. The interviewer wrote down the answers that people gave to questions like this. Someone had to read those answers and classify them into a number of categories. Maybe they punched the answers to the multiple-choice questions first, then turned the questionnaires over to the people who classified the answers, and didn't bother to send it back to punch that question. Or maybe the answers were so shocking that they decided that decency and good taste demanded be suppressed. On the other hand, maybe the answers were so dull that they decided it was wasn't worth bothering. We'll never know.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Confidence in higher education

In the last few years, I've heard a lot about how people are losing confidence in higher education because of rising costs, concerns that our graduates aren't ready for the globalized and diverse workplace, ... You can fill in the rest. I was skeptical of this, but I hadn't seen any data. I looked and found that the Harris Poll has asked this question pretty much annually since the 1970s: "As far as people in charge of running...major educational institutions, such as colleges and universities are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?"

That's not ideal, since it asks about the "people in charge of running" them rather than the institutions rather than the institutions as a whole, and "major educational institutions" could go beyond colleges and universities. Still, it's what we have, so here's a figure of the percent who said "a great deal" of confidence. The line is broken because in the 1970s, they used different question wordings, so it's not clear if the results are comparable. Still, it is clear that confidence dropped from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, and then recovered. I don't think that confidence in other institutions followed a pattern like this, so it must have been something specific to higher education. I recall that there were a lot of books about the failings of higher education then (Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind was the best known). Maybe their message got through to the general public. Or maybe they reflected the spirit of the times?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Men are such fools

A Gallup Poll from 1946: “Generally speaking, which do you think are more intelligent, men or women?”
40% said men, 21% women, 36% said no difference, and 4% had no opinion.

A Pew Research Center survey from 2008: “Now I would like to ask about some specific characteristics of men and women. For each one that I read, please tell me whether you think it is generally more true of men or more true of women..... intelligent?”
14% said men, 38% women, 45% said equal or it depends, 3% don't know

A big change there. A few other surveys since the 1990s have asked similar questions, with about the same results as the Pew question.

Opinions about racial differences in intelligence have also changed, but in a different way. In 1939 a Fortune surveys asked “Do you think Negroes now generally have higher intelligence than white people, lower, or about the same?
Only 1% said higher, 71% said lower, 22% about the same, and 6% don't know

In 1999 a Newsweek/PSRA poll asked “In general, do you think black people are more intelligent than whites, less intelligent than whites, or about the same?”
3% said more, 1% less, 92% about the same, and 4% don't know

To put it another way, the percent of people who say that there are race differences in intelligence has dropped from over 70% to less than 5%; the percent who say that there are sex differences in intelligence has declined only slightly (61% to 52%), but opinions on which sex is more intelligent have reversed.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lower cost, same result

It's been over a week since my last post. This blogging thing isn't as easy as it looks. Maybe if I click on that "Monetize" tab I can figure out how to quit my job and...

The Tea Party movement has reminded me of the anti-tax movement of the late 1970s. A Roper survey from July 1978 asked about measures to limit property taxes (which were popular), and then had some interesting follow-up questions. One asked “if the property tax were cut to 1% of market value . . . Do you think tax increases or service cuts would be necessary, or that needed services could be maintained without resorting to service cuts or tax increases?”

A majority (53%) said that tax increases or service cuts would NOT be needed. Those people were asked “Do you think that the government would find the needed money somewhere else, or that they would cut costs by eliminating waste, inefficiency, and needless programs?” 28% said they'd find the money somewhere else, 59% that they'd eliminate waste—the rest said some of both or weren't sure.

26% said that service cuts or tax increases would be necessary. They were asked which they thought the government would do—18% said raise taxes, 60% said cut services, and the rest weren't sure or said that they'd do some of both.

So for a lot of people, it seems that tax cuts were not a way to stop the welfare state, but a way to get it more cheaply. I haven't seen any similar questions asked recently.

The 20% who were not sure on the first question weren't asked any follow-up.