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The Cartography of Bullshit
May 18, 2013 9:12 AM   Subscribe

On the 15 May, Max Fisher of the Washington Post penned an article titled A fascinating map of the world’s most and least racially tolerant countries. Fisher surmised that Anglo and Latin American countries are the most tolerant, linking racism to economic freedom based off of a study by two Swedish economists. Siddhartha Mitter responds, who, in The Cartography of Bullshit writes, "Although the results don’t pass the sniff test in the first place, I took a look at the data as well, in an effort to identify the exact problems at play..."

"It turns out that the entire exercise is a methodological disaster, with problems in the survey question premise and operationalization, its use by the Swedish economists and by Fisher, and, as an inevitable result, in Fisher’s additional interpretations. The two caveats that Fisher offered in his post – first, that survey respondents might be lying about their racial views, and second, that the survey data are from different years, depending on the country – only scratch the surface of what is basically a crime against social science perpetrated in broad daylight. They certainly weren’t enough to stop Fisher from compiling and posting his map, even though its analytic base is so weak as to render its message fraudulent."
posted by whyareyouatriangle (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good, I'm glad someone's bothered to do the proper takedown.

I thought this map looked like utter crap when it turned up on social media; the claim that South Africa is less racist than France and on a par with Germany was enough to raise massive red flags.
posted by jaduncan at 9:35 AM on May 18, 2013 [6 favorites]


the biggest problem, of course, is that “race” is impossible to operationalize in a cross-national comparison. Whereas a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country, a person being of “another race” depends on constructs that vary widely, in both nature and level of perceived importance

Er, yes---that's why the question is useful, as it allows the person being interviewed to reveal their own belief in race and its importance. After all, its not measuring the presence of different races (which would indeed be complex and require a sharp awareness of the arbitrary nature of racial categories), it's measuring how important the people being questioned think race is.

Self-reporting is, of course, always a problem, but what people are willing to reveal is itself an important measure of attitudes towards race---is an unwillingness to have neighbors of a different race something you admit to, or a dirty secret?

As methodological takedowns go, this isn't very impressive, and the author's stance of "I wanted this to be wrong, so I've come up with some ways it could be wrong" is just pathetic.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:54 AM on May 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


In other words, out of all of the many traits of difference for which the WVS surveyed respondents’ tolerance, the Swedish economists – and Fisher, in their wake – managed to select for comparison the single most useless one.
Japan is a lovely shade of tolerant blue.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:57 AM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


On first glance, it seems about right, IMO. Countries with a diverse racial makeup are more tolerant? Makes sense. So I was taken aback by what appeared to be a kneejerk reaction by Mitter until I got to this:
Moreover, the menu of traits available in the survey for respondents to tolerate or not tolerate varied by country. Thus, Iranians were asked about Zoroastrians; Puerto Ricans, about Spiritists; Tanzanians, about witchdoctors; Peruvians, inexplicably, about “Jews, Arabs, Asians, gypsies, etc.” (A124_33). In other words, the question about race was presented as part of a different menu of questions depending on the country, another red flag signaling a need for caution in isolating it and using it to produce grand findings.
Oh. Yep. That is some bullshit right there.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:57 AM on May 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'm not really trained in this kind of thing, but I'm inclined to agree with Mitter, if for no other reason than the varying ages of the data available. And why on earth did Fisher block him on Twitter, as if he were some Infowars griefer?

Parenthetically, one of Mitter's commenters offers this remark:

Goebbeldigook is alive and thriving in the disinformation age of the PNAC totalitarian dictatorship of the Nato terror corporatariat.


I . . . just wanted to leave that here.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:59 AM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


If only we all had our own islands. Problems solved.
posted by Fizz at 10:05 AM on May 18, 2013


I saw this map and my first question was, "Japan? Really?"
posted by dfriedman at 10:06 AM on May 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Self-reporting is, of course, always a problem, but what people are willing to reveal is itself an important measure of attitudes towards race---is an unwillingness to have neighbors of a different race something you admit to, or a dirty secret?

Self-reporting does really seem to have very minimal value when direct questioning is involved, such as questions that explicitly mention race or sexuality. To get people to open up about such things it seems you would have to use the common dogwhistles used by Fox News and the like; here in the US, I think you would get more people agreeing that they wouldn't want to live next door to "immigrants" or "people who don't hold the same Family Values as you do" than they would if the words used were "people of a different race than your own" or "homosexuals". But then again, all those dogwhistley terms are open to wider interpretations.

There is, of course, a certain segment of the population who are easily caught by self-reporting; this is presumably why the US Govt asks you if you are a terrorist on visa applications, and why the ASPCA asks if you plan to use the dog you are adopting in dog fights.
posted by elizardbits at 10:07 AM on May 18, 2013 [3 favorites]


Bad methodology doesn't mean they are wrong, it just means they can't prove whether they are right.
posted by gjc at 10:09 AM on May 18, 2013


the claim that South Africa is less racist than France and on a par with Germany was enough to raise massive red flags.--jaduncan

Political acceptability of giving certain answers probably affects the answers. Post-apartheid it is probably frowned upon to express racial preferences in South Africa, no matter what you really feel, whereas in France, there are political parties based on anti-immigration policies.
posted by eye of newt at 10:11 AM on May 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


whereas in France, there are political parties based on anti-immigration policies.

The Inkatha Freedom Party gets not far off the votes of the FN, and is quite into virulent nationalism and ethnic separatism. Even the ANC base is not very up on mass immigration:

2008 South Africa riots
Date: May 2008
Location: Gauteng, Durban, Mpumalanga
Result: 62 people dead, several hundred injured, voluntary deportation of immigrants to home countries, destruction of immigrant-owned property.
posted by jaduncan at 10:29 AM on May 18, 2013


I saw this map and my first question was, "Japan? Really?"

"Quick, someone tell the Japanese Brazilians they've changed their minds!"
posted by jaduncan at 10:30 AM on May 18, 2013


Regarding South Africa: since white people are a minority in that country, does that shape results which seems counterintuitive to us? I think that if you said, "yesterday I met a South African," most people would picture a white person, even though the numbers within SA itself would not make that the most likely result.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:31 AM on May 18, 2013


(Not that the survey isn't also useless.)
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:31 AM on May 18, 2013


The survey isn't useless. The survey is fine for what it does.

It's Fisher's gross misinterpretation of the survey results that's worse than useless.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:39 AM on May 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have to wonder how many interviews went like this:
"Would you mind if [insert other race here] moved into your neighborhood?"
"No, of course not. I am an open-minded, tolerant individual.... But they would never move into this neighborhood."
"Oh? Why not?"
"Well, they just wouldn't... fit in, I guess? I mean, I wouldn't... mind, but really it's better... you know, for them."
"So... I'll put you down for 'No,' then."
"Well, of course. I'm not a racist."
posted by Etrigan at 10:39 AM on May 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


this is presumably why the US Govt asks you if you are a terrorist on visa applications, and why the ASPCA asks if you plan to use the dog you are adopting in dog fights.

'Not only did he blow up a schoolbus, but he lied!'
posted by shakespeherian at 10:53 AM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The analysis sucks.

But notice that there doesn't appear to be much quantitative basis for the assertion of the opposite:


The deepest-red, or most racially intolerant, countries were India, Bangladesh and Jordan. Russia and China fell in the middle; much of Africa was left out for lack of data, but South Africa came out light blue (highly tolerant), and Nigeria light red (highly intolerant). Other highly tolerant countries included Pakistan and Belarus.
A cursory glance at this distribution of results would suggest something deeply suspect about the exercise


Really? Why?

There seems to be a default assumption that these results must be wrong because US is given as less intolerant than Europe (which I think is actually true) and both are significantly less than India ... which I think is more about the needs of the political beliefs of the observer than reality.

The most virulently racist people I have ever met were Indian ex-pats followed by HK Chinese (mutually hating one another, by the way, though sharing contempt for blacks - the attitude that after all, it's only blacks dying is apparently not rare for either.)

Muslim countries in general actually do seem to be quite tolerant of different races.

I see some people mentioning Japan above. A better survey would have been fascinating: ask about whites, koreans, mainland chinese, blacks, hispanics. The results would be a fascinating ladder of privilege.
posted by rr at 10:58 AM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


There seems to be a default assumption that these results must be wrong because US is given as less intolerant than Europe (which I think is actually true) and both are significantly less than India ...

I am not seeing evidence of this supposed assumption here or in the article. Can you show where you are seeing it?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:22 AM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


The conflation of ethnicity and race seemed strange to me (presumably, for example, Rwandans would be talking about their comfort living near Tutsi, Hutu, or Mbaka, not blacks or whites). I also thought it was kind of strange that the original article completely ignored the African continent, one of the places where inter-ethnic conflict has been particularly serious, and where the patterns were interesting. What makes Burkina Faso so different from Mali or Nigeria, for example?
posted by ChuraChura at 11:29 AM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I suspect the responses to this survey would be drastically different if instead of asking about having neighbors of a different race, it asked about how respondents would feel if their son or daughter married and had kids with someone of a different race.
posted by raztaj at 11:31 AM on May 18, 2013


rr, the least controversial part of the map is that the US is more tolerant than Europe, when it comes to race. In spite of the huge problems the US has with race, individual Americans are probably more comfortable with people of different races that individual Europeans.
It's the other parts of the map that are jarring. Should we really believe that India and Jordan are less tolerant than Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? No we shouldn't - it makes no sense at all. Should we believe that Norway is more tolerant than France? No, that would be ridiculous.
It seems the original Swedish article is already a bunch of hay, and Fischer just expanded the silliness
posted by mumimor at 11:32 AM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I frankly think our collective unwillingness to accept the fact that "Anglo" countries are more tolerant is just a sign of how tolerant we are.

(I kid! I kid! Out of a sense of extreme tolerance for all view points, of course.)
posted by vorpal bunny at 11:41 AM on May 18, 2013


Mumimor: I'm not sure assertion and supposition from anecdote is a more convincing substitute for bad science.
posted by biffa at 2:08 PM on May 18, 2013


Obviously, one needs reliable data and a sound methodology for research. And sometimes, that data will show something that goes entirely against the grain, and you will have new findings and something to act on. However, nothing in this article, or in the Swedish article, indicates that there is reliable data to validate any conclusion. So in this particular case, common sense and popular sentiment is still more valid that "research". Bad research is a thing.

That said, I think there is a lot of valid research which goes directly against these articles - for instance documenting racism in Norway, or cultural clashes in Jordan. However, from where I am writing, I do not have access to the relevant resources.
posted by mumimor at 2:21 PM on May 18, 2013


Japan is a lovely shade of tolerant blue.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:57 PM on May 18

I saw this map and my first question was, "Japan? Really?"
posted by dfriedman at 1:06 PM on May 18


The most virulently racist people I have ever met were Indian ex-pats followed by HK Chinese (mutually hating one another, by the way, though sharing contempt for blacks
posted by rr at 1:58 PM on May 18


No doubt there is a word for people who leap into a discussion of racism to share which ethnic groups they stereotype as being the real racists.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:43 PM on May 18, 2013 [5 favorites]


Look, comrade_robot, you gotta understand that there are a lot of places where racism is not considered a bad thing, or a shameful secret. It's considered how things are, and prejudice against certain ethnic groups is considered as sensible as tying your shoes. Anyone who has spent time in one of these countries has had this experience, and hearing people from the Anglosphere express horror at the reporting of such experience just sounds provincial.

Should we really believe that India and Jordan are less tolerant than Saudi Arabia and Pakistan? No we shouldn't - it makes no sense at all. Should we believe that Norway is more tolerant than France? No, that would be ridiculous.

Why? Do you have a reason for that assumption?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:08 PM on May 18, 2013 [4 favorites]


Norway is pretty insular in combination with being culturally conservative. That generally has a relationship with being intolerant in the sense we're discussing. But you get intolerance in more culturally diverse areas (but usually with cultural conservatism — so there's a widely applicable correlation in that, I think).

My general observation, though, is that ethnic intolerance has a number of etiologies and manifestations and it's really damn difficult to make general quantitative comparisons. That is to say, doing so very often creates more heat than light.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:20 PM on May 18, 2013


Why? Do you have a reason for that assumption?
Yeah, as I wrote above I do, but I am in a place where I don't have access to the research.

However, the Swedish paper and the linked article are based on very sketchy data, within a field where tons and tons of research has been made. The critical article exposes this.

Saudi Arabia is a good case: how do you even make reliable interviews in that country? First of all, you are not likely to get a visa.

Norway is the complicated case, because we all want Norway to be perfect, and certainly the Norwegians do. But the fact is that Norwegians are really suspicious of strangers, even when they are from other European countries this is a good example
posted by mumimor at 3:21 PM on May 18, 2013


It's like when conservatives say the real racists are those who notice racism and complain about it
posted by Renoroc at 3:21 PM on May 18, 2013


Norway is pretty insular in combination with being culturally conservative. That generally has a relationship with being intolerant in the sense we're discussing. But you get intolerance in more culturally diverse areas

There was a study a few years back that showed that more diverse areas tended to have more racism than homogenous ones. Which makes sense---people rarely hate those to whom they've had no exposure. Most Americans have no prejudice against the Hmong, but some Southern Californians are terribly prejudiced against them, because there's a large and poor Hmong community there. Similarly, I've seen vastly more open racism in New York City than in smaller towns because there are constant border conflicts. Not saying this is a reason to give up on diversity, just saying it's naive to think that diversity brings tolerance.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 4:49 PM on May 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


There was a study a few years back that showed that more diverse areas tended to have more racism than homogenous ones.

Agree from my anecdotal experience. I'm not white, grew up in a small town in the American Southwest, and have never been more reminded of my own ethnicity and other-ness than in New York.
posted by pravit at 8:41 PM on May 19, 2013


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