Bad Advice, Good Television
For inspiration tonight, I type this while watching Carrie Bradshaw type her column on Sex and the City reruns. I’m going to try to end with something facile yet pithy, just like her.
OK, a big reason I became involved with the Strategist is because I believe the Party is getting bad advice from various quarters. On a completely unrelated note, I am on record as questioning the analysis of American Environics, a new consulting firm founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger, authors of the influential The Death of Environmentalism. Nordhaus has a background in environmental activism and consulting. Schellenberger, a public relations consultant, helped launch the group behind the New Apollo Project. That’s almost enough to make me forgive him for opening his bio with, “Michael Shellenberger specializes in synthesizing ideas from a wide range of fields in ways that create social change breakthroughs.”
Where was I? In February, The American Prospect published a much-discussed article touting American Environics’s research findings. It painted a picture of Cro-Magnon attitudes toward gender roles, tolerance of violence, plummeting civic-mindedness, and an every-man-for-himself ethos. This portrait seemed far too…hellish to me, and some of the statistics seemed implausible. For example, AE found that a majority of Americans believed that “the father of the family must be the master in his own house” and 40 percent said that “men are naturally superior to women”.
It’s too late to make this long story short, but Ruy Teixeira and I independently checked some of their claims against data from the American National Election Study. To put it simply, we found very few of their claims that we could examine were supported by our data, and their response was pathetic.
Yesterday I found an abbreviated survey on the website of the partner company (Environics) responsible for the data AE uses that promised to place me in one of twelve “tribes” defined by two values dimensions (social vs. individual orientation and modern vs. traditional attitudes). Turns out I’m an Autonomous Post-Materialist, which sounds right (and harks back to my post from yesterday). But their description of the tribe seemed rather off the mark. For instance, it claimed my “icons” were people like Dennis Rodman, “dot-com millionaires”, and “computer hacker Mafiaboy”, none of which describe this rather inhibited, law-abiding grad student. In general, the characterization seemed a collection of exaggerated traits describing multiple groups with little in common other than their location on the two value dimensions.
In the Prospect piece, American Environics described a similar mapping of Americans onto two values dimensions – authority vs. individuality and fulfillment vs. survival. And again, the characterization of their location on these axes was exaggerated and oversimplified. Rather than emphasizing the personal choice aspect of “individuality”, it is “anomie-aimlessness” and an “atomized, rage-filled outlook” that are highlighted. And how does the “survival” end of that dimension encompass fatalism and apathy as well as acceptance of violence and sexism?
Don’t get me wrong, the Prospect article itself – written by the estimable Garance Franke-Ruta – made a number of insightful points about class and the economy and how moral values are prioritized in places where there appears to be a threat of these values being eroded; our criticism was of AE rather than her. Having subsequently read the details of AE’s methodology on their website, I think they are collecting an impressive amount of data and analyzing it creatively. I even think their approach – identifying values that swing voters share with progressives to win them over even when they disagree on some other key value – could be quite valuable.
But their basic data seems to have problems (perhaps a non-representative sample, potentially as a consequence of who does and does not agree to participate in the survey). Some of their value dimensions seem too imprecisely defined (“individuality” as choice and as rage-filled) and poorly labeled (“survival” as encompassing apathy). And Nordhaus and Schellenberger seem to describe traits in the most extreme way possible. Finally, as far as I can tell, Environics doesn’t include questions on policy or political preferences in their survey, since it was and is primarily collected for corporate clients. Their sole politics-oriented paper appears to make a number of contentious claims based on a lit review and...intuition? That means that AE can say which values are the right ones to target, but their data can’t say anything about which policies to promote in order to reflect the right values. At best, they can suggest an effective rhetoric for politicians. But not until they iron out their other problems.
So I beg you, Center for American Progress, DLC, NDN, Third Way, and EPI -- please don't hang your hats on what American Environics is peddling.
In conclusion, being single in Manhattan makes you constantly face the question: can bad data give politicians good advice about good values? And if American Environics doesn’t value good data then how can they provide good value to bad politicians? (I tried…I'm no Carrie Bradshaw.)