Category Archives: Research

Arguing about Confederate Statues and History

Confederate Statue photo
Photo by Ron Cogswell

Much has been made about the relatively high public support for keeping Confederate statues. For example, the Reuters/Ipsos poll found that the majority (54%)of Americans favor keeping the statues, while only a minority (27%) want them removed. A number of explanations have been suggested for why such a significant portion of Americans support keeping the statues.
⁃ These represent a part of our history
⁃ They’re a symbol of Southern pride
⁃ It’s just coded racism

But if we want to remove these statues and monuments (and I’m certainly on this side), it’s important to understand why there is so much opposition to doing so and how one could counter that opposition.

Tom H.C. Anderson of the text analytics software company OdinText ran a nice survey, analyzing open-ended responses to try to understand how people explain their support for keeping or removing the statues. He first asked if Confederate Civil War Monuments should be allowed in the US.1 Following this, he gave people an open-ended question, asking why or why not.

For the three-fifths (61%) who said allow the statues, nearly all of the respondents explained this by saying something about our history. So, if keeping the statues is about maintaining our history, what happens if we explicitly make a statement out protecting history while still removing statues from public places. That should increase support for this action.

One survey, by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling supports this interpretation. They asked specifically asked about support or opposition to relocating to museums or other locations where they can be placed in historical context. This was the only poll I found that found a majority supporting removal (58% supporting relocation, 26% opposing).

However, I don’t think most people really consider moving them to museums, so I wanted to tease apart the issue of how one might remove the statues. I ran my own survey, using Google Consumer Surveys,2 asking the following question:

Which best represents your opinion about Confederate statues and monuments in public places?3

  • They should remain where they are
  • They should be moved to a museum
  • They should be completely removed

When presented with these three choices, people still chose “remain” most frequently, but it was no longer the majority option, but a plurality. Instead, the combination of moving to a museum or removing completely was the majority choice. See table 1, below.

Answer ChoicePercent
Moved to a museum34%
Removed completely22%

For those that really see statues as representing an important part of history and want them to be preserved for that reason, they now have a way to express that.

I take two key ideas away from this:

  1. Framing the argument: Those who want the statues removed (and I count myself among them) can more effectively frame the argument by including the concept of preserving history (and setting the context). There are some (although perhaps a small percentage) who really believe that it’s about history and they can (perhaps) be won over. And those that are using the argument of preserving history as a pretext will have to come up with a darned good counter-argument when removing (or rather moving) the statues is framed explicitly in terms of preserving that history.
  2. Evidence that “history” is just a pretext: A plurality (and close to a majority) still said that the statues should remain, rather than placed in historical context. Because they could have chosen to say move to a museum and didn’t do so, it suggests to me that many people who say history, don’t really mean that. Instead, it’s about, in their mind, honoring heroes fighting for a noble cause, even if they won’t acknowledge that the “noble” cause was slavery, the owning of other human beings.

A quick diversion on the history of these statues and monuments: these were largely erected between 1900 and 1915, when Jim Crow laws dominated after attempts at integration following reconstruction and leading up to the rebirth of the KKK in 1915. The United Daughters of Confederacy put up a huge portion of these monuments and worked to promote a revisionist history of the South.

A second, but smaller peak occurred during the 1960s, during the civil rights era, especially in the naming of schools after Confederate politicians and soldiers.

In other words, these statues, monuments, and schools weren’t put there to celebrate what happened in 1865 but promote White supremacy and attack the civil rights of Blacks at that time.

  1. I do have some issues with this framing of the alternatives. The “should be allowed” phrasing suggests a ban on such monuments, which some people would see as running counter to the American ideals of freedom and liberty.
  2. Google Consumer surveys attempt to match the overall US internet population through the use of stratified sampling and then weighting at the end. Google uses “inferred” data on gender, geographic distribution, and age distribution, through respondents’ browsing history (DoubleClick cookies for age & gender and IP address for geography). They then attempt to match this inferred data to national demographics from the US Census Current Population Survey (CPS). Because it matches the US internet population (now about 87% of the total US adult population), the results skew somewhat younger, higher in income, higher educational attainment, and less rural. In addition, there’s no information on race/ethnicity, which would have been particularly useful for this question. Not surprisingly, Whites and Blacks, on average, respond very differently to this question (see the Reuters/Ipsos poll referenced above). 
  3. The survey ran between 24 August and 26 August, with 384 respondents, for a margin of error of ±5%. 
Hand-painted "Vote" sign

Polling and voter fraud

A recent Morning Consult/POLITICO poll indicated that a plurality of voters think that Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton was helped most by voter fraud. According to the poll, 35% of respondents think voter fraud helped Donald Trump and 30% think it helped Hillary Clinton. Only 18% indicated that no voter fraud occurred (another 17% said they didn’t know or had no opinion).

That’s an interesting result and, in some ways, runs counter to Trump’s narrative of the popular vote. If voter fraud helped him more than it helped Hillary Clinton, then it can’t be responsible for his being a loser in the popular vote. He just lost.

But in a more important way, it confirms Trump’s and the Republican’s narrative about wide-spread voter fraud. Regardless which candidate they think it helped in this past election, if the general public believes voter fraud is pervasive, it becomes much easier to enact legislation to fight this non-existent problem. And the problem does not exist. As nearly every credible study has shown, incidence rates of voter fraud are just infinitesimal (see the Brennan Center’s terrific report for an excellent summary of the evidence).

But the polling itself, and the reporting of it raises some concerns for me. The Morning Consult article on the results does lead with the sentence, “President Donald Trump has insisted, without evidence [emphasis added], that the 2016 election was rife with illegal voting…” But that statement could be interpreted just that Trump himself provided no evidence, not that no evidence for voter fraud exists.

While it’s true that Trump has provided no evidence, any story on this issue, including reports of survey results such as this, should go further and affirmatively state that evidence for significant in-person voter fraud does not and could not exist, because you can’t provide evidence for something that doesn’t actually occur.

I’ll go even further and suggest that an article on suggestions of voter fraud should include reference to the much more significant issue of voter suppression. It, after all, does exist. Since the wave election of 2010 and after the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case, 20 states have passed laws to restrict voting. More importantly, these laws affect Black, Hispanic, and Asian voters at significantly higher rates than White voters.

Woman holding sign that says "Voter Suppression is Unamerican"
Voting Rights March on 10 December 2011 in NYC

Brendan Nyhan and others have researched and discussed the difficulty of challenging false information, and how attempts to rebut such misinformation can lead to a “backfire” effect. When attempt to rebut a false statement, one can actually reinforce those falsehoods with those who are motivated to believe the incorrect facts because the falsehoods support their world view. Instead, it may more effective to to frame your rebuttal in an affirmative way, rather than directly counter the false information.

This leads to my broader concern about this poll. When one asks about issues for which clear answers exist, what is our responsibility as researchers? We can study perceptions of voter fraud and we can report on what our respondents believe, but we can’t let that stand alone. But as I’ve just stated, when reporting the results, we must include the reality of the situation (e.g., widespread voter fraud does not exist; almost no cases of in-person fraud have been uncovered). Otherwise, we risk contributing to the perpetuation of false information.

But what about within the poll itself? Do we have any duty to our respondents to correct knowingly false information? Clearly, we wouldn’t want to bias the answers, but at the end of the survey, do we connect respondents to the true information? I don’t have good answers on this, but it’s an important question to consider.

Popular US Baby Names — BabyCenter versus Social Security Administration

I was listening to the latest episode of Slate’s “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” parenting podcast and one of the topics was baby names.  The guests was BabyCenter executive editor Janet Ozzard, who talked about the most popular baby names of 2014.  BabyCenter collects its information on baby names from those that have given their baby’s name to the site, which for 2014 included somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 names.   I thought it might be fun to see how similar this is to the Social Security Administration (SSA) list of baby names, which is essentially the entire population of babies in the US, rather than a self-selected group.

Now the Social Security Administration public list contains the names of about 3.6 million babies born in the United States in 2013.   This information comes from Social Security card applications and includes all babies born in the United States if the name has at least 2 letters, and information on state of birth, sex, and year are included.  They do exclude from the public list names that are given to 4 or fewer babies, for privacy reasons.

On the other hand, the BabyCenter list only contains the names of those that have been given to them by participating parents (usually the mother).   While 400,000 or 500,000 is a lot of people, these are clearly not representative of the US population.   First, it’s likely that those that have registered on BabyCenter are different in some significant ways from the overall US population, if for no other reason than they are on the Internet.   According to the Pew Research Internet Project, those not on the Internet are more likely to speak Spanish, have lower incomes, and have less than a high school education.  And, of course, not all BabyCenter visitors are from the US, perhaps only about 50%.

Listed below are the top 20 names for 2013 for boys and girls for both BabyCenter and the Social Security Administration.  I used 2013 data, as that’s the most recent year for which data is available for both the SSA and BabyCenter.  There are some interesting differences.   For girls, the first six are almost exactly the same (Mia and Ava switch places).  Then we get into some big differences.   Zoe is #8 on the BabyCenter list, but only #31 on the SSA list.  However, this is because BabyCenter combines similar names while SSA treats each unique spelling as a different name.  And if you add the number of girls named “Zoey” (#24) and “Zoe” (#31) on the SSA list, they would end up being #7.  However, Lily is #7 on BabyCenter, but only #27 for the SSA.  Similarly Madelyn is #13 on BabyCenter but #68 on the SSA list (although if you combine this with Madeline (#90) it would be #23.  Conversely, Elizabeth is #10 on the SSA list, but all the way down to #46 for BabyCenter.

For boys, initially the differences look greater, but again part of this occurs because BabyCenter combines similar names.  Jackson is #1 on the BabyCenter list, but only #16 on the SSA list.  However, if this is added to the number of boys named Jaxson (#46 on the SSA list), it would be number one too.  Still, the #2 name on BabyCenter list is Aiden, which isn’t even in the top 10 on the SSA list (#12).   And, in the other direction, William is #5 on the SSA list but only #20 for BabyCenter.

So, if you’re a BabyCenter user, and want to know what others like you are naming their kids, look at the BabyCenter list.  If you want to see what people in the US are naming their children, go to the SSA list.   And if you want a cool visualization of historical changes, go to the NameVoyager.

 Girls Boys
Social SecurityBabyCenterSocial SecurityBabyCenter