Are rational people weird?
By Scott Sumner
This poll of college students caught my eye:
Let’s take the abortion question first. I strongly support my campus allowing speakers to advocate banning abortion. Does that mean my views coincide with 18% of college students? I doubt that. I suspect that either far more than 18% of students agree with me, or far fewer. Let’s start with the “far fewer” hypothesis.
One thing I notice is that very few people say they strongly support allowing controversial speakers of any sort, whether advocating right wing racial theories of intelligence or left wing claims that all whites are racist. College students just don’t seem to like controversial speakers. Now let’s think about those 18% that are completely OK with pro-life speakers. I suspect that this group is heavily skewed toward people with pro-life views. I can’t prove that, but I’m pretty confident that this is the case.
I happen to be pro-choice. I suspect that only a tiny number of students say they are pro-choice and also supportive of allowing pro-life speakers. And I suspect that most of the pro-lifers within that 18% would turn on a dime if the speaker advocated no restrictions on abortion. In other words, perhaps only around 1% or 2% of college students believe in free speech even for views they disagree with, at least if one believes this interpretation of the poll. That means that rational people like you and I are really weird.
Now let’s consider an alternative (more optimistic) view. Maybe the students aren’t actually expressing their views carefully. College students are busy and when someone stops them on the quad with a poll question about this or that, they quickly answer based on their general view on the topic. They think, “racial supremacy is bad”, or “a law banning all abortions is bad”, or “censorship is bad.” Then the opinion they offer isn’t really a considered opinion on censorship, it’s more like a gut reaction to the general subject being considered.
Do I have any evidence for this? Yes, in 11 years of blogging I find that people often confuse one issue with another. Thus if I say that Roe v. Wade was decided on highly questionable grounds, people immediately assume that my comments pertain to the wisdom of banning abortion, not the legal justification for the ruling. They confuse procedural issues with policy issues. Not just once and a while, but all the time. And keep in mind that blog commenters tend to be much smarter than the average college student.
Here’s another piece of evidence for my claim. Students say that they want to censor speakers who advocate censorship. But how likely is it that this is their actual belief? If The Onion did a satirical story mocking that poll result, many college students would probably find the story amusing. They might say, “Yes, OK, I don’t actually want to censor someone advocating censorship; I just don’t like the idea of censorship.” They didn’t consider the term ‘allowing’ from the perspective of a professor of logic, rather they expressed their view as to whether it was a good idea to invite such a speaker.
To conclude, I don’t believe that 18% of students strongly favor free speech when discussing abortion. I suspect the actual figure is closer to 2% or 50%. I just don’t know which. Or maybe there is no truth of the matter; it entirely depends on how you word the question. I believe I could word poll questions in such a way as to get almost any desired result.
What do you think?
BTW, even my 50% estimate allows for plenty of “cancel culture” on campuses. I suspect that phenomenon is very real.
PS. This is part of a long series of posts I’ve done questioning “public opinion”, which I regard as a very elusive concept. Sort of like electrons.
PPS. If I’m right, then the following poll questions would yield even more interesting results:
Would you favor allowing a speaker who spoke out against banning speakers who advocated censorship? What about speakers who had no opinion on banning speakers who actually favored censorship, but argued that speakers should be allowed to discuss in general terms the pros and cons of banning pro-censorship speakers? Etc., etc. Keep asking until you find enough degrees of separation from the actual issue that people feel comfortable discussing it. Ban person A? Ban B for talking about A? Ban C for talking about B? Ban D for talking about C?
Or how about this question:
Would you favor banning a speaker who had very strong views on the issue of abortion, if you didn’t know what those views were?
Now that would be interesting. But then pollsters almost never ask the truly interesting questions.