Subscribe via RSS Feed

Causation, Correlation, Aggression, and Political Rhetoric

[ 70 ] January 10, 2011 |

John Sides at the Monkey Cage weighs in with some social science on the relationship between militant metaphors in political speech and individuals’ willingness to engage in actual political violence against government officials. The findings he cites: an experimental study has shown there seems to be no effect on the overall population of exposure to “fighting words” in political ads, but there is an effect on people with aggressive tendencies. Moreover:

This conditional relationship — between seeing violent ads and a predisposition to aggression — appears stronger among those under the age of 40 (vs. those older), men (vs. women), and Democrats (vs. Republicans).

But his real point is that we should be cautious of inferring from this or any wider probabilistic data causation regarding a specific event:

To prove that vitriol causes any particular act of violence, we cannot speak about “atmosphere.” We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence. That is a far harder thing to do. But absent such evidence, we are merely waving our hands at causation and preferring instead to treat the mere existence of vitriol and the mere existence of violence as implying some relationship between the two.

UPDATE: Two other points of view from political scientists: Henry Farrell and Dan Nexon.

Comments (70)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. John Protevi says:

    So that’s it, a binary between “hand waving” and billiard ball causality? Somebody’s got a terribly impoverished view of “causality” here. I’d say it was an example of “physics envy” but contemporary physicists aren’t that crude.

    Let me give an analogy to a well-known biological principle, Schmalhausen’s Law, to show that we can make sense of the interchange of environment and population w/o meeting an impossible billiard ball causality standard. Schmalhausen showed that in species-typical environments, developmental robustness hides a lot of genetic variation. In other words, in normal environments you can get roughly the same results a population with genetic variance. But put that population under environmental stress and the previously hidden genetic variation shows up in a greater range of phenotypes. This is not “hand-waving” but neither does it adhere to an impossible physics-envy billiard ball causality standard.

    The analogy here of course, is that today’s political rhetoric environment is so extreme that we can plausibly suppose that it will expose the psychological variation in the population that would otherwise remain unexpressed.

    That is not hand-waving, and it shouldn’t be dismissed because it doesn’t match some ridiculous standard of a direct cause-and-effect of one statement to one act.

  2. DocAmazing says:

    I guess we owe an apology to the broadcasters at Radio Rwanda.

    • anders says:

      I realize you’re just having a piss here, but, rather obviously, the situation isn’t remotely comparable. For it to be so, Sarah Palin would have to have said something like: “Giffords is now at X address, and we expect her and her family to move from there to Y address, following Z road, later this afternoon. It is the duty of all good Americans to ambush and kill all of them today”. I think Palin’s rhetoric is utterly contempitble, but it’s qualitatively different and not comparable to the concrete, uncontroversially murderous crimes you allude to.

  3. Malaclypse says:

    So does the study posit any explanation for the reason threats against members of Congress have gone up 300%? Or is asking that question waving hands at causality?

  4. kth says:

    Just because there’s no way to establish causation doesn’t mean that it’s unreasonable to infer that the unreal, fantastic, hallucinatory quality of teabagger rhetoric (more to blame here than the mere shrillness imo) might make these kinds of catastrophes more likely.

  5. Doug says:

    Shorter Sides: We need a larger data set of assassination victims before we can say anything about causes of political violence.

  6. chris says:

    “I will fight for (abstract idea)” is pretty weaksauce as “violent rhetoric” goes — I’m not sure I would even count it in that category. Certainly not compared to the kinds of things that people are actually pointing at as possible influences on the recent assassination attempt.

  7. rea says:

    We’ve had years of the political right playing footsie with the right wing eliminationists. They want those peoples votes, and they think it’s productive to talk in a way that feeds eliminationist fantasies. But of course, when the time comes for assigning responsibility, the political right denies everything. They play the same game with racism. But yeah, unless we conclude that they are too stupid to be allowed out in public on their own, they well know that violence is the likely result of their rhetoric, and they’ve long since made the calculation that the occasional embarrassment from someone acting on their rhetoric is outweighed by the benefits derived from the alliance with the eliminationists and their sympathizers.

  8. ploeg says:

    Can we at least agree that politicians who use violent, eliminationist rhetoric, and then have the gall to be surprised when the shooting starts, are a bunch of stupid, chickenshit cowards?

  9. Ken says:

    For many years, we have heard claims that violent images and language in video games, movies, rap music, etc. can cause people to become more violent in real life. Were those arguments false all along, or do political ads have some special properties that don’t trigger the same behavior?

    • Anonymous says:

      “False all along” is a pretty strong claim, but a lot of the evidence regarding images of violence in movies, tv, video games, etc was pretty thin to begin with, and the studies that showed an effect in that direction always got a lot more media attention than those that didn’t.

    • Joe says:

      I don’t think the rejoinder was that the violence had no effect. Media clearly has some effect, including regarding equality (gays on t.v. or 1950s mores promoted) and other things. The concern was that the direct effects, especially the idea we could single out a narrow subset, wasn’t strong enough to censor it.

    • ploeg says:

      Political ads have the property that the intended target is a real live person. Not to mention that Hans Gruber is dead at the end of the film and there’s no need to rekill him.

  10. JJ says:

    and Democrats (vs. Republicans).

    I’ll just go ahead and point this bit of awkward information out, since nobody else has.

    Based on what I’ve read about the shooter’s philosophy, he doesn’t fit left or right very well.

    If I were to ask some of my right wing friends, before this happened, if his philosophy remotely resembled their own, they would say “absolutely not”. Likewise, if someone were to ask me or any of my other left leaning friends the same question, before we knew what he did, I’m confident I and others would say “absolutely not”.

    Nobody wants to be linked to this guy, and in politics that means we should naturally blame the other side, right?

    • John Protevi says:

      Bullshit false equivalence, “JJ.” Your game has gotten old and predictable already.

      • JJ says:

        So is the game of trying to tie one man’s actions to a greater social phenomenon without any real hard evidence.

        I’m not sure why you put my name in quotes, either? Unless you’re trying to imply that because I don’t go by my “real ID” and because I don’t agree with you here then I must be a troll?

        • John Protevi says:

          Dude, your idea of “real hard evidence” is what I’ve been hammering at in this thread and in the other one. Your inability to respond to those criticisms, and your constant repetition of an impossible-to-meet standard in order to flog your disingenuous false equivalence is why I think you’re a troll, not anything to do with your screen name.

          • JJ says:

            I’ve clearly documented the “standard” I’m looking for by referencing other articles where people are also skeptical that Loughner is a result of violent right wing rhetoric. I did that starting out my post previously by agree with the author here, and if that’s not clear enough I’ll do so again by stating that my standards are pretty much the same as those set forth by Henri Farrell in Charli’s post. So there you go, my “standards”, and I don’t think they’re so unreasonable like you make them out to be.

            • John Protevi says:

              They’re not “unreasonable,” they are hackneyed, in that they rely on a correlation vs causation binary that implies such an impoverished view of “causation” that it makes it impossible to say anything about any human being’s action. Which makes that standard of “proof” mighty convenient for those, unlike Henry Farrell — and John Sides for that matter — who are bullshit false equivalence peddlers like you.

              • JJ says:

                Which makes that standard of “proof” mighty convenient for those, unlike Henry Farrell — and John Sides for that matter — who are bullshit false equivalence peddlers like you.

                Rather than attacking my style or calling me “hackneyed”, why don’t you give me some points that back up your accusations by directly addressing the two articles I referenced previously as examples of my standards?

              • John Protevi says:

                directly addressing the two articles I referenced previously as examples of my standards?

                Typical troll tactic, demanding I duplicate the work I’ve already done on different examples. I’ve been addressing the principles of your very common standpoint all along, in each of my posts. If we’re assigning homework, why don’t you try, as an exercise, to summarize my critique of those principles? I’ve already shown my critique of your position.

              • JJ says:

                I think you’re the troll. Just to be sure, I went back and checked my posts from last night, and the first time you responded to anything I’ve said directly was today in this thread above, in which case you claim to have been “hammering” at my idea of “real hard evidence” all along. I guess by that you mean that since I have not gone back and searched out every one of your posts, and because I did not respond to them, I am trolling you? Well, so your feelings are not hurt, I’ll just point out that I didn’t respond to nor did I read a majority of the comments that were not directed at me. There were over 142 in yesterday’s thread alone. So if you’re unable to address my questions, or respectfully point me to where they’ve already been addressed, without continuing to fall back on attacking me personally, then I’m just going to assume you’re trolling me and I’ll let bygones be bygones.

              • John Protevi says:

                Oh for goodness sake. You were running exactly the same line as Brad Potts in the other thread. You do know what a principle is, don’t you? If I critique Potts’s principles, and they’re exactly the same as yours, and I critique your principles in this thread, do I have to go back and attack the same principles in your posts in the other thread?

                And as far as “respect” goes, why don’t you respect the gravity of the situation this country faces and quit the bullshit false equivalence line you’re peddling? How’s that for respect?

              • Brad P. says:

                Oh for goodness sake. You were running exactly the same line as Brad Potts in the other thread. You do know what a principle is, don’t you? If I critique Potts’s principles, and they’re exactly the same as yours, and I critique your principles in this thread, do I have to go back and attack the same principles in your posts in the other thread?

                And as far as “respect” goes, why don’t you respect the gravity of the situation this country faces and quit the bullshit false equivalence line you’re peddling? How’s that for respect?

                You see, John, you tried this same thing on me, almost down to the word. All your posts on this subject have been arrogance, belittlement, avoidance, and accusations of bad faith. Not a single one was devoted to actually making a connection between “violent” right-wing rhetoric and a unstable, incoherent murderer who expressed his dislike for Giffords in 2007.

                You wanted to tie this to some political gamesmanship, and evidence is not showing up to support the political conclusion you had jumped to. Now, instead of acknowledging that this has little to do with that earlier political discussion, you are making accusations of ridiculous standards when you can show anything other than coincidence.

                We all read our expectations into reality, John. It happens.

              • JJ says:

                And as far as “respect” goes, why don’t you respect the gravity of the situation this country faces and quit the bullshit false equivalence line you’re peddling? How’s that for respect?

                Seriously?

              • John Protevi says:

                Not a single one was devoted to actually making a connection between “violent” right-wing rhetoric and a unstable, incoherent murderer who expressed his dislike for Giffords in 2007.

                You wanted to tie this to some political gamesmanship, and evidence is not showing up to support the political conclusion you had jumped to. Now, instead of acknowledging that this has little to do with that earlier political discussion, you are making accusations of ridiculous standards when you can show anything other than coincidence.

                Brad, my whole argument here has been to show that all your calls for “making a connection” and “evidence” that is more than “coincidence” are based on crude assumptions about psychology and causation that effectively shield the right wing from any responsibility. Nothing you say here helps you defend yourself against that critique. In fact it just makes it worse when you repeat them. Of course I don’t “make a connection” and provide “evidence” when my critique is against the demand for “making a connection” and providing “evidence.” I’m sorry if you think it’s arrogant to point this out, but you haven’t grasped the very starting point of what I’m saying.

              • Brad P. says:

                Brad, my whole argument here has been to show that all your calls for “making a connection” and “evidence” that is more than “coincidence” are based on crude assumptions about psychology and causation that effectively shield the right wing from any responsibility. Nothing you say here helps you defend yourself against that critique. In fact it just makes it worse when you repeat them. Of course I don’t “make a connection” and provide “evidence” when my critique is against the demand for “making a connection” and providing “evidence.” I’m sorry if you think it’s arrogant to point this out, but you haven’t grasped the very starting point of what I’m saying.

                How am I to accept what you say is true if you won’t make a connection between republican rhetoric and the Giffords shooting or provide evidence?

              • John Protevi says:

                I’m going to refer you over to the discussion at New APPS, where I’ve tried to lay this out in a little more detail.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Is there any real hard evidence that the Malleus Maleficarum actually lead to the burning of witches? Can anyone prove that each and every Inquisitor had read and was following the book? You know, some Inquisitors were probably illiterate, so that disproves the thesis from the get-go.

          Besides, some of those witches said mean things about the Inquisitors as well. Both Sides Did It.

        • hv says:

          JJ, the choice of target(s) is real, hard evidence.

          It may not be enough to convince you, but please don’t mischaracterize the position. There is at least one shred of hard, cold fact.

          I find choice of target to be much more real and hard evidence than whatever reading list and armchair profiling you are claiming gives you certainty that he was a lone wolf.

          ==========

          People wouldn’t think you are a troll if you met your own standards.

          • JJ says:

            Keep in mind that his “choice of target” was his representative. It wasn’t like he went out and specifically hunted down a Democrat, necessarily, she could have easily been a moderate Republican and he still might have carried out his mission (we don’t know). So while his “choice” of target is real hard evidence, it doesn’t prove that he killed her as a result of violent rhetoric from the right wing, which is what we are arguing here.

            • John Protevi says:

              it doesn’t prove that he killed her as a result of violent rhetoric from the right wing, which is what we are arguing here.

              No, JJ, that’s what *you* are arguing here, and I’m arguing that your calls for “proof” of a cause-and-effect “result” are badly misleading.

            • hv says:

              Keep in mind that his “choice of target” was his representative.

              Oh, only 1 person was shot?

              • JJ says:

                Oh, only 1 person was shot?

                I’m not ignoring the other victims of this tragedy, but I thought it was clear here we both agreed that his primary target was the Congresswoman. I was responding to what you said here:

                I find choice of target to be much more real and hard evidence than whatever reading list and armchair profiling you are claiming gives you certainty that he was a lone wolf.

                I think we both can agree his primary target was not that poor little girl. She was an innocent bystander in what turned out to be a mass shooting, but one I think was premeditated with at least the Congresswoman as his primary objective.

              • hv says:

                Dude, he opened a full clip into a democratic rally. After he had shot Ms. Giffords in the head at point blank range. So target can’t be singular. And he stopped because his clip went dry, not because he had checked off his list of targets. Given an infinite clip, he would still be shooting. So it’s safe to say all democrats at that rally were his target, isn’t it!

                When every democrat = target of opportunity, do you really think he was a leftist?!

                Finally, I never agreed that target was singular in this case, and I frequently used the plural or even the “target(s)” construction. Sometimes I use the singular phrase “choice of target” when I am referring to it as a concept. Sometimes you just have to have an ear for nuance. Or, failing that, don’t assume.

            • DocAmazing says:

              Let’s not be so quick to forget Judge Roll, who was in fact the focus of a lot of right-wing rage and death threats/”jokes”. If he was by-catch, it’s pretty convenient for the right wing; however, let’s not rule out the possibility that he was an intended target. (Cf. assassination of Anton Cermak under cover of attempt on FDR.)

              • JJ says:

                My understanding is the Judge was invited only shortly before the event, so it seems to me that Loughner probably didn’t know he was going to be there. But if he was an intended target that certainly changes things.

          • JJ says:

            I wish I could edit my post, but since I can’t I also want to add that I never said I was certain of anything, my entire argument this whole time is that we have such limited information at this point that it’s disingenuous for us to blame other people. I also want to make clear that I’m not defending violent right wing rhetoric, which I find as abhorrent most of us here.

            • John Protevi says:

              I also want to make clear that I’m not defending violent right wing rhetoric, which I find as abhorrent most of us here.

              Oh please. You find them so abhorrent that you go to elaborate lengths to construct an impossible standard of proof in order to insulate its proponents from any critique.

              • JJ says:

                What is so impossible about my standards? Loughner is alive, and while he might not be cooperating now, it’s not like he is going anywhere. They are going to learn more about his motives and his influences over time. But I’m not going to jump on the blame game right now. Don’t conflate my position here with somehow me defending or “insulating” people I despise to begin with.

            • hv says:

              my entire argument this whole time is that we have such limited information at this point…

              JJ, meet JJ

              I tend to agree with this analysis by Andrew Sprung (I was linked there by Sullivan): “no party or clique”.

              Or maybe this JJ.

              Armchair or not, I’ve made my observations and I’m sticking to them until I see more information that leads me to think otherwise.

              I guess you think that your willingness to change your mind at a future date means you are claiming it is too soon to make up your mind in the first place?

              • JJ says:

                I’ve thought for a while I need to change my name here because “JJ” is too common. But yes, I’ve met the JJ you referenced.

                I guess you think that your willingness to change your mind at a future date means you are claiming it is too soon to make up your mind in the first place?

                Yes, I think that it is too soon to be so confident about this guy based on what I’ve read.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ll just go ahead and point this bit of awkward information out, since nobody else has.

      This particular dead horse was thoroughly flogged here by you among others.

      If I were to ask some of my right wing friends, before this happened, if his philosophy remotely resembled their own, they would say “absolutely not”.

      Well, who could argue with evidence like that? Just because he mimics a right-wing conspiracy theorist with the grammar, and wants a gold standard, and wants (ironically) better English speakers/writers, that hardly outweighs the evidence provided by your friends’ disavowal.

      • Malaclypse says:

        Above was me.

        • JJ says:

          I’ve read about “David-Wynn Miller” before this happened and when I first read Loughner’s postings the first thing I thought was how strangely familiar they were to Miller’s. But then I went back and reread Miller’s site, and I was reminded that his “grammar” is several extra degrees more bonkers than Loughner’s. I can at least understand what Loughner is trying to say at least some of the time. That’s not to say he’s not influenced by Miller, but he certainly hasn’t mastered Miller’s language by any means (other than that he thinks our words have no meaning).

          Second, don’t you think it’s dishonest to not mention Loughner’s clearly documented left leaning quirks as well? I know, you can read the Communist Manifesto and not be a “Communist”, but Loughner went the extra step and listed it as one of his favorite books on a YouTube channel. His friends and people familiar with him also continue to paint a picture of a person who was mentally ill (see here and here, but I haven’t seen one quote from a single person who knows him describing his viewpoints as “right wing”, while there is at least one person describes him as “quite liberal” and “left leaning”.

          I think Loughner was mentally ill, and he took bits and pieces of ideology from all ends of the spectrum to come up with his own distorted view of reality. Both the left and the right are trying to use this tragedy to score political points rather than recognizing it for what it is. There is simply too much we do not know to be able to honestly make these snap judgements and it’s basically nothing more than “name calling” to do so at this point.

          • hv says:

            The piece you are missing is that the mentally ill can ALSO be influenced by violent rhetoric, just like the rest of us!

            • JJ says:

              I agree with you there, but I do think making these claims that Loughner’s actions are a result of right wing rhetoric requires more evidence than what anybody has offered up so far.

              • hv says:

                …an experimental study has shown there seems to be no effect on the overall population of exposure to “fighting words” in political ads, but there is an effect on people with aggressive tendencies.

                Um, besides the study quoted in this item?

      • hv says:

        … that hardly outweighs the evidence provided by your friends’ disavowal.

        Because none of JJ’s friends disavowed any other right-wing nutjob shooters, right?

        • JJ says:

          If you go back and read what I said, I made it clear that in this hypothetical situation my friends only know his viewpoints, not that he was going to be a future mass murderer.

    • chris says:

      Based on what I’ve read about the shooter’s philosophy, he doesn’t fit left or right very well.

      Most people don’t, except for professional politicians. Sometimes not even them. The incentives of politics push politicians into picking one whole list of positions or the other, but when nonprofessionals are just making up their own minds about things, they tend to end up all over the place on different issues.

      But not all his ideas are relevant to this incident, so let’s focus on those that are:

      Private ownership of automatic weapons? Right wing. The idea that government officials are the enemy? Right wing. The idea that you should violently attack your political enemies? Very, very right wing.

      The right has been literally asking for this to happen for months, maybe years, and now when it does happen they’re trying to wash their hands of it? Bullshit.

      • hv says:

        And in the interests of balance, let me unequivocally state that: if someone comes along and helps a poor family sign up for welfare, I am very comfortable assuming that person was liberal or left wing.

        Actions speak louder than reading lists.

  11. John Protevi says:

    UPDATE: Two other points of view from political scientists: Henry Farrell and Dan Nexon.

    Does this mean I can start referring to myself as “philosopher John Protevi”?

  12. hv says:

    We need to be able to demonstrate that vitriolic messages were actually heard and believed by the perpetrators of violence.

    Even for a billiard-ball-causist, this reasoning is terrible. It ignores combination shots!

    We must also consider the cases where a different billiard ball “heard and believed” the vitriolic messages and transfers that belief to the shooter billiard ball.

    The radically increasing complexity of measuring these things is a primary reason why the billiard ball theory is not a primary model among sociologists.

    Heck, even physics has abandoned billiard balls.

    ===========

    Can’t help but wonder what propositions in political science John Sides would regard as proven.

  13. Michael H Schneider says:

    It’s been decades since I read Emile Durkheim’s book “Suicide”. However, my recollection is that he established that one certainly can draw a link between social currents – what’s happening in society at large – and the specific decisions made by individuals, even disturbed or possbly deranged individuals.

    Has something managed to refute this claim in the century plus since that book was published, or is my memory gone again? I mean, isn’t it all like sciency and sociological and shit?

  14. Malaclypse says:

    Has something managed to refute this claim in the century plus since that book was published, or is my memory gone again?

    Actually, there is a lot wrong with Suicide. The biggest objection that I recall is that the whole book pretty much rested on the ecological fallacy.

Leave a Reply




If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a Gravatar.

  • Switch to our mobile site