I guess you can be innumerate and still become a professor of public affairs

In a surprising discovery, reading the Wall Street Journal opinion pages will make you 57% dumber, will kill 8,945,562,241 neurons, and will force you to invent ridiculous statistics. Don’t follow that link! The article will make you cry as you go through a Flowers for Algernon experience.

You could read it through the Echidne filter for a little protection (she’s a goddess, she was safe in reading it.) Arthur Brooks, billed as a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs, has written an incredibly stupid article, arguing that because Republican parents outbreed Democratic parents, their party will have a growing lock on government. The numbers, though, simply don’t make sense, nor does the logic. He first claims that there is a “fertility gap” of 41% between liberals and conservatives, and then in a fit of innumerate fervor, claims this will generate a rapid imbalance.

A state that was split 50-50 between left and right in 2004 will tilt right by 2012, 54% to 46%. By 2020, it will be certifiably right-wing, 59% to 41%. A state that is currently 55-45 in favor of liberals (like California) will be 54-46 in favor of conservatives by 2020–and all for no other reason than babies.

Hold it—an 8% difference in the voting population generated in eight years? By differential reproduction alone? That’s simply ludicrous, and I’d sure like to know what kind of calculations this professor made to estimate that. Net population growth in the US is about 0.6% per year, and even assuming every single person entering their majority joins the Republican party, you get less than a 5% difference in 8 years of growth. Fortunately, I don’t have to stretch my brain at all this morning: Steve Reuland has done the actual calculations for Ohio. Basically, all you need to know is that in a state with a population of 11 million, there’s a net gain of about 40,000 new individuals, which may be split with a small advantage to Republican households, but that’s going to be a small gain. There’s just no way it can add up to such a huge difference over a few years.

Also, Steve points out that migration is a bigger contributor to population changes, swamping out these birth differences. Need I point out as well that Republicanism and Democratic party membership are not fixed genetic properties? Brooks mentions that about 80% of the people vote the same way as their parents (given the quality of his understanding of statistics, though, I view that number with a jaundiced eye), but doesn’t seem to understand that that 20% that differ is a greater factor than the small difference in reproductive rate. Well, not the rate that he claims, but those numbers are screwy.

I also have doubts about his base statistics that argue for this amazing Republican fecundity. Shouldn’t these basic demographic facts make you wonder about his estimates?

Higher fertility has been a major source of population growth among minority groups. Hispanics have the highest fertility rate of any U.S. minority, with the average Hispanic woman giving birth to three children in her lifetime. The African-American fertility rate is 2.2 lifetime births per woman. Non-Hispanic whites have the lowest fertility rate of 1.8, about 14 percent below the “replacement rate” of 2.1.

Last I looked, the Republican party does not have a significant minority component. However, I am not going to make the stupid mistake that Brooks does, and assume that these unhatched chickens are all going to flock to the party of my choice


  1. says

    Heh! Yeah, that particular piece got chewed up and spat out pretty thoroughly. But since most journalists and their editors are innumerate and proud of it, this gets played up big-time.

    By the way: Here’s another thing to raise your blood pressure, from the NYT this morning:

    Evolutionary biology has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant for low-income college students.

    The omission is inadvertent, said Katherine McLane, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, which administers the grants. “There is no explanation for it being left off the list,” Ms. McLane said. “It has always been an eligible major.”

    Another spokeswoman, Samara Yudof, said evolutionary biology would be restored to the list, but as of last night it was still missing.

    “Inadvertent” my ass. If that were the case, then how come the DoE person who made this public didn’t dare give his or her name, for fear of reprisals? Read on:

    If a major is not on the list, students in that major cannot get grants unless they declare another major, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Mr. Nassirian said students seeking the grants went first to their college registrar, who determined whether they were full-time students majoring in an eligible field.

    “If a field is missing, that student would not even get into the process,” he said.

    That the omission occurred at all is worrying scientists concerned about threats to the teaching of evolution.

    One of them, Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, said he learned about it from someone at the Department of Education, who got in touch with him after his essay on the necessity of teaching evolution appeared in The New York Times on Aug. 15. Dr. Krauss would not name his source, who he said was concerned about being publicly identified as having drawn attention to the matter.

  2. quork says

    I can see that Brooks needs some help with his numbers. Statistics show that if you add a decimal place, 23.7% more people will believe you.

  3. says

    There used to be a set of characteristics comparing Democrats and Republicans that was circulate in print shops and used as introductions at civic clubs, well before the internet. You know, stuff like, “Republicans eat at country clubs, Democrats eat Country Club brand potato chips at the local diner.”

    The last few comparisons dealt with sex: “Democrats believe it’s necessary to kiss a lot of girls (or men, depending on the gender of the Democrat) in order to find the right one; Republicans think it’s necessary to kiss up to get a job so the right girl will find them. Democrats sleep in a double bed that rarely gets made in the morning; Republicans sleep in separate, single beds that are always made before leaving the bedroom — which is why there are more Democrats than Republicans.”

    No, it wasn’t a howler then, either.

    Brooks failed to account for immigration, among other things. Democrats have been able to rely on Republicans offending all people of color, any different ethnicity, or national origin, to grow the party. That’s still true for the most part. Democrats generally have fewer kids as a matter of social responsibility; but they have a lot of friends and relatives from other places who will move in seeking opportunity, truth and the American Way. Which is why Republicans raise the fees at the country club and want to put up a wall between the U.S. and the rest of the world.

  4. Greg Peterson says

    And let’s not even call this “fertility,” which I take to be a good thing, but what it is: irresponsibility, in the form of reproduction run amok. Having five baby Republicans or Democrats either one is just plain stupid, so let’s not, any of us, try to screw our party into the Oval Office. Wrap that rascal.

  5. says

    Ummm…yeah. Since when is number of offspring a measure of fertility? You can be fertile and have no kids….or even infertile with 6 (adoption, IVF, donation, etc)!

    Freaky stats. Gotta love em. ;)

  6. Lya Kahlo says

    They’re only posting responses that agree with this dumb article.

    Because we can’t have a stupid premise challenged by logical or sanity.

  7. says

    If their (strictly internal) logic prevailed, then Republicans would want Democrats to have more children, being that a favorite gripe of the Rights is that they’re perennially being oppressed by some irrelevant “elite.” More cows do not a farmer make!

  8. says

    I actually looked into the original data set. It’s ginormous and they ask money for downloading it. If I spent the money and then downloaded the data set it would probably take me, working alone, mmm, about a year of full-time work to make up the studies that supposedly underpin three of Brooks’s opinion articles. And I still wouldn’t know what standardization methods he used and what he used as the measure of a liberal or a conservative. The data set has quite a few possible ways of doing that.

    This is a highly irregular practice for an academic to use, and by “this” I mean not leaving a verifiable track to the evidence. I’m not saying that he hasn’t done the study but I’d really like to see it.

  9. says

    Ummm…yeah. Since when is number of offspring a measure of fertility? You can be fertile and have no kids….or even infertile with 6 (adoption, IVF, donation, etc)!

    In demography, “fertility” refers to the number of children that women actually have, not their potential.

  10. Kayla says

    Hold it–an 8% difference in the voting population generated in eight years?

    Maybe Republicans have learned how to reproduce by binary fission…..

  11. Mark says

    Actually, I think you made some basic math errors yourself, PZ. Basically, you based the rate of change of a population’s politics on the growth rate times the fraction of new citizens with a particular leaning.

    Net population growth in the US is about 0.6% per year, and even assuming every single person entering their majority joins the Republican party, you get less than a 5% difference in 8 years of growth.

    By this logic, if the population was stable, its politics would never change, no matter how many republican babies were born. The problem is thus the failure to take into account the population turnover.

    The correct way to calculate the change in political preference is to consider the birth and death rates separately and apply the correct political statistics to each one separately:

    new republicans =
    birthrate * %republicanbirth –
    deathrate * %republicanpopulation

    assuming that a population starts out as 50/50 republican/democrat, using your assumption of 100% republican birth rate, and making up a 1.6%birth / 1%death rate for purposes of illustration while keeping the .6% growth factor, you get a 56%/44% split after eight years. Thats a 12% difference, not less that 5% as you stated above.

    note: this assumes a steady state, obviously newborns cannot vote for another 18 years, but if the trend has been occuring for a while, the number of minors turning 18 can be substituted for the birth numbers.

    Not to defend the author of the article, as the new voter split would have to be 83%/17% to obtain his results, but it’s important to get the math right when refuting this.

  12. David says

    Hey guys, he may be on to something. Don’t you remember all the dire warnings that inferior races reproduce faster than we do and will swamp us if we don’t do anything about it? Perhaps the the good professor is including the young republican breeders under that heading.

  13. says

    Wait, PZ, now you’ve gone and destroyed the only pick up line I had left – we have to do it or the Republicans win! Now what am I going to do?

  14. Peter Z. says

    Yay for migration! Evil liberal europeans (such as myself) will swamp the republican breeding advantage!

  15. A says

    Even if the Republicans are breeding more NOW, it’ll still be 18 years before that affects us.

  16. says

    Liberals cannot multiply?

    Allow me to prove the WSJ wrong:

    2 x 2 = 4
    3 x 9 = 27

    Is that enough?

    Did you hear the one about how the adders were about to go extinct until someone gave them tables made from logs? Because with log tables even adders can multiply! LOL …

  17. melior says

    I don’t buy the 80% claim, and based on my experiences with people I suspect it’s not based on sound research.

    I myself am a team-switcher. My father and mother voted Republican their entire lives, yet I would rather plunge 10-inch knitting needles into my eyes than do the same.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    …a Flowers for Algernon experience…

    How so? In that story, Charly Gordon started out by going through a phase of steadily increasing intelligence: where has Brooks or the movement he represents demonstrated anything parallel to that?

  19. bernarda says

    It is not only science under attack by the extreme rightwing. In Florida, Jeb Bush wants to establish an official history.


    “One way to measure the fears of people in power is by the intensity of their quest for certainty and control over knowledge.

    By that standard, the members of the Florida Legislature marked themselves as the folks most terrified of history in the United States when in June they took bold action to become the first state to outlaw historical interpretation in public schools. In other words, Florida has officially replaced the study of history with the imposition of dogma and effectively outlawed critical thinking.”

  20. Noumenon says

    A state that was split 50-50 between left and right in 2004 will tilt right by 2012, 54% to 46%.

    Shouldn’t it take 18 years for the difference to show up in voters at all?